Designing A Book Cover

by Miko Johnston

Gayle, Madeline and guest blogger Elaine Orr have all recently posted about the importance of research in writing. It reminded me that the subject has been a constant theme on our website. Not surprisingly, I’d been preparing one on the same subject.

My entire Petal In The Wind saga is about to be reissued under a new imprint, in addition to the publication of my fourth book in the series. When my publisher ceased operations, I regained the rights to the three earlier novels, but not the cover art. New covers had to be designed. I knew an excellent source for that which resulted in two sets of designs from which to choose; I’ve put a sample of each for the newest book below. The good news: they were both fantastic. The bad news: they were both fantastic. I couldn’t choose.

I asked others for their opinion, which were divided. Part of me thought I couldn’t go wrong with either, but another part thought, “nah, too easy.” I researched the subject online and found some good information, but I still couldn’t decide which set I wanted.

I needed expert advice. Then it dawned on me who could give it.

In the town where I live, there’s a small independent bookstore, one of the perks of living in a tourist town (another is having many quaint shops, over a dozen restaurants, and two wine bars despite a local population of 2,000). While bookstores are not unique, many visitors stop in to ours to seek out local authors, a great way to discover new writers.

Despite its small size, Kingfisher Bookstore holds a remarkable array of books, everything from popular fiction to DIY hobby and craft books, history and historical fiction, books for kids of all ages and their grownups. When customers ask for local authors, Meg, the owner and book buyer, takes them to a table she’s dedicated to their works of fiction, memoir and poetry, and “hand-sells” them based on the customer’s interest.

I brought my computer to the store and asked Meg if she’d give me her opinion. She looked at both cover sets and asked me, “Is your book historical fiction or romance?” I told her the former. Then I got a valuable lesson in cover design.

Apparently, you can judge a book by its cover. Everything, from color to images to font, sends signals to a potential reader as to what the book is about. Meg guided me through the many subtleties of cover design, which helped me decide which to choose for my series.

For the record, I chose the set represented by the left image, above, but with a Serif font. Here’s why. The novel begins in the last year of World War I and takes the characters through the mid-twenties, with fascism on the rise. Darker images indicate the gravitas of the times. The “ripped paper” cover with the woman implies a love story more than historical fiction, which would be misleading to a reader looking for romance. Sans serif fonts fit better with modern writing. The Didot font I’ll use has a very 20th Century feel that’s neither too modern or too old-fashioned.

Will all this fuss over the cover guarantee sales? Probably not, but at least readers who purchase my book might have a better sense of what they’re getting.

Have you ever considered asking someone who owns or runs an independent bookstore for advice on any aspect of marketing, from what’s selling to what your cover should look like? I would strongly recommend it. And while you’re there, thank them for supporting writers. Where would we be without them?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”.

The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Words, Words, Words

by Jill Amadio

Capture (1)For the past several months I have often wondered when I would succumb to the inevitable and find that one morning I have woken up woke.

If so, what would it mean? When would the barrage of new phrases and words all find their way into my mysteries?  That alone is a mystery, one of wonderment as I ponder the problem. The main issue, I assume, is finding the correct context for such slang as “snowflakes” when I am writing about my main character, Tosca Trevant, as she sunbathes in Newport Beach, California. Turns out that calling someone a snowflake is an insult. The connotation is beyond me but I can just imagine her whispering furiously in denial as I write.

Perhaps I should send her “catfishing” after having a “glow-up” as part of the plot. Translated, catfishing appears to mean using a fake ID, and glow-up refers to using make-up in order to make oneself more attractive, although it can also refer to using cocaine. I should confess here that the British phrase, “nighthawking” has been around forever in the UK and widely used in books and film. It was recently used in the TV detective series, “Midsummer Murders,” and means poaching, trespassing to hunt rabbits and wild life illegally at night.

What about “gaslighting?” To my mind the expression would necessitate sending Tosca back in time to that glorious era when gas lit our street lights, lamps, and stoves. Ah, but I was able to understood it quite easily when I remembered how the dastardly Charles Boyer would alternately lower and then raise the gas to make Ingrid Berman think she was going crazy.

The word “doxed,” however, had me baffled until I Googled it and found it means luring someone into a relationship, usually with malicious intent, and using an online dating service. Now, doesn’t the word “lure” conjure up a far more sinister image than dox? I also think that anything beginning with “dox” sounds like something Shakespeare would write, or thundered aloud by King Henry VIII, and is akin to “pox.”

According to my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus, under the reference for “doxology,” there are many meanings, almost all relating to religion and one to “malicious intent.” This term has a far more ominous foreboding to it than dox. Even using it in context in conversation would, I think, raise eyebrows.Office clutter 1

Which brings me to “shadow banning,” and its offshoot, “stealth banning.” The first version is weird but the second phrase is much more clear. But both well and truly stumped me, even when I took them separately. How was I to use the phrase in a book unless, perhaps, I was writing a ghost story? Would the plot require me to ban shadows? I once wrote a magazine series about a ghost-hunting couple who went on to have a TV show, but I know for a fact they were seeking what they believed were real ghosts, not shadows. This week, defining the phrase resulted in my learning that shadow banning means blocking someone from using their social media page without their knowledge.

How about “cancel culture?” Seems as if all these new words have negative meanings. I suppose that cancel culture means boycotting someone’s ideas and beliefs, or their culture and replacing it with something more acceptable – although I ask who is making those decisions?

Reviewing all of these slang words, most of which have not yet been added to my computer’s Spelling program, I wonder how long before they will be replaced with others, and how can writers keep up? I scoured a few of the latest mysteries recently released and could find none of the above, just old-fashioned, familiar words that can be understood by readers, as they have been for centuries.

Will we be left behind if we don’t keep up with the new language? Will publishers need to pull our mysteries and re-edit to replace the offending words we have lovingly crafted and insert instead the current phraseology? Or should we wait awhile for the truly latest? Only on television have I heard any of the above weirdo words used, mostly by news broadcasters with woke as their favorite. One last note, some of the slang has now been translated into other languages, including Urdu.

What is your favorite gripe, if any, about our new English language? Are you planning to use it in your mysteries and thrillers? Perhaps we should include a glossary at the beginning or back of the book. Or not. Either way, I am off to get a glow up, do a little catfishing, and dox my landlord.

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An Unexpected Rest Stop

On my winding writing road, I’ve been stopped dead in my “writing tracks.”

Indeed, several recent posts here on Writers in Residence discussing research(Elaine L. Orr and G.B. Pool), and a recent most excellent local book-club selection, have sent me down a thought-path(new considerations), I most definitely did not expect.

Research thoughts, combined with my belief that characters and location are the essential keys to good story-telling, and subsequently good  book writing—have taken me aback a bit—well, at least rethinking my “absolutes.” So, I’m sharing here(smile).

Indeed, I always take particular note of posts—here, and elsewhere on writer’s blogs on “Research”—especially regarding, how, why, and its value. I so agree that only with direct knowledge, and/or in depth research, can you take a reader on the great adventure you think is important enough to write a book about. It’s in the “environment” that your characters tell their stories. Story telling at its best—and producing an enjoyable novel that will bring pleasure to a reader.

But here’s what really pulled me into this particular rest stop. Our latest book club selection was by a famous, and justifiably so, well liked, well respected, popular, and to me, very accomplished and good writer. And I certainly would recommend. I sampled enough to know the prose was excellent—with good story telling prowess, and the characters seemed like real people. Indeed, the author’s ability to take you to a place in just one sentence was astounding! The characters seemed real and quite interesting. But, after reading the intro, a quickie synopsis, and enough sampling to make the above comments, I did not want to read the book.

Why? Right now I’m thinking it was because I did not want to go to the location of the novel which I’m sure, in its completeness, was presented expertly. Nor did I want to be involved in the lives of the characters.

Which led me here; is it possible a reader might not want to go to the place I’ve so wonderfully researched and described? Not want to enter into the story intrigues I want to draw them into? Not want to “feel” the sensations I’ve taken such care to describe? How could that be? Right now, I’m leaning toward the supposition there are some places some readers might not want to physically or mentally visit—in reality or literally. Regardless of how well researched, described, or author enticed into.

Surprised by my reaction, it’s given me pause to initially think some potential readers might not be reading my books because they don’t want to go where my setting is, or with my characters? The Mojave Desert, and Leiv et al?

Rereading the above before posting, there’s a lot of “I’s” here, but as always, I’m(smile) thinking laying out my surprising to me reaction, and initial thoughts here might be helpful? Location and characters are still my “holy grail” for writing—though there’s a “but” here somewhere that I’m missing…

All thoughts are welcome!

Happy Writing Trails!

What Makes a Good Mystery Series for the Author and the Reader?

While Jackie Houchin is on vacation (in Spain or France now) we have another Guest Author. (Thank-you, Elaine!)  Jackie hopes to return with her next scheduled post of June 8, 2022. 

by Elaine L.  Orr

Like most writers, I put words on paper because if they don’t get out that way I risk screaming on a street corner. I get those words into print because I think others would enjoy them.

When readers like the characters, they may clamor for more. Even if they don’t initially, we think they will. I consider several things when I start a new mystery series.

  • Is the setting or main topic interesting enough to keep exploring? My first series (the now twelve-book Jolie Gentil series) is set at the Jersey shore because I love small, east coast beach towns.
  • Can I connect to the characters enough that readers can too? This doesn’t mean does an author like the characters. Some of the most relatable ones are the evil ones.
  • Is the life of the main character part of a profession or hobby that makes discovering a lot of big problems (or bodies) realistic? Jolie is a real estate appraiser and runs a food pantry, both things that bring her into contact with many people in varied settings.
  • Is there a plan to have the characters evolve over time? If lead characters have the same strength and foibles in every book, they become predictable. That sameness can lead to reader (and writer) boredom.
  • Is the plan to write a certain number of books, culminating in a big event or life transition? Or can stories continue as long as the author has ideas?

I’ve used the Jolie Gentil Series as the example, so I’ll do it one more time. I envisioned three books, with the third being called Justice for Scoobie, a childhood friend she reconnects with as an adult. Wrong. He’s the favorite character. Couldn’t bump him off and have Jolie solve that crime!

 

My primary hobby is researching family history, a natural one seeing that I like U.S. history and finding my families’ links to it. Why did I never make that an important focus of a series? Beats me. It is now.

The Family History Mystery Series has the fourth book underway. And that tells me something. My other two series (River’s Edge and Logland) have three books each. I may start fourth books, but why not jump into them immediately after the third?

Did I not think through the first four questions above? I did, and I have more ideas. What was missing? Passion. Hard to define, but it’s another key component of writing. You have to REALLY want those characters’ lives to continue if they appear in a series.

Have you noticed I didn’t use the word plot once in this piece? All good stories need more than a beginning, middle and end. They need a compelling story and conflict, which doesn’t necessarily mean action. In mysteries, there are a myriad of criteria. For example, if the villain pops up at the end with very little role or foreshadowing, reviews may not be kind.

As in all books, plot matters in a series. But the characters (and their evolution) matter most. Main and even ancillary characters need to contribute to the story and have a clear purpose.

Reader reactions matter, but they can’t determine how your characters develop. They can, however, inform what you do after book one. Take them seriously, but don’t make them your guide.

Finally, enjoy writing the series. If you don’t, the series could meet an untimely demise.

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Elaine L. Orr writes four mystery series, blogs, keeps in touch with lots of family and friends, and tromps cemeteries looking for long-dead ancestors.

To learn more, visit https://www.elaineorr.com.

 

 

Research: How Much is Enough?

 

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up Who’s Who? Back when he wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, or the hundreds of other historical characters who populate his plays. There were a few books available that would give him some background information and the schools in the Stratford area where he grew up had a curriculum that taught a lot about the Greeks, Romans, and what History was known at the time. What else would they be teaching? Nuclear fission? Some “scholars” (I use quotation marks because I question their credentials.) have tried to say The Bard didn’t actually write all his work because he wasn’t “formally educated” and how dare a mere peasant do such a good job? Well, it looks like he did and did it beautifully.

 

My point is, writers need to research their work just like Shakespeare must have done at least enough to capture an era or a practice or an historical character who might appear in their story. And then there are locations that the writer might never have actually visited like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars or police procedures like Along Came a Spider by James Patterson unless they were a cop or knew a cop themselves or knew how to break into a house unless they were a burglar or knew one or… You get my drift.

 

So what does a writer today do? Research. There is a ton of it already done out there whether you go to the library or use the Internet or talk to people who do some of this stuff for a living or who have experienced something about which you are writing. Dick Francis gave his characters great jobs before the mystery interfered with their daily lives. Everything from jockeys to photographers to wine merchants. By the time the mystery was solved the reader knew some interesting things about all kinds of occupations. And it was always just enough. He never weighed down his prose with a seminar on “existential basket weaving.” Of course there is Joseph Wambaugh who served fourteen years with the Los Angeles Police Department and who then went on to write over a dozen terrific novels about the police.

 

Let me give you a “for instance” of learning something from a great source. When I was first writing the Johnny Casino books I wanted him to have a rather dubious background. I wanted his father to be in the Mob back in New Jersey. Johnny would grow up in that atmosphere. He would actually work for the Mob until he realized this wasn’t who he was (In more ways than one as it turned out.) He wanted something else out of life.

 

This was all well and good. Johnny would change his name, eventually move to California, and become a private detective after nearly screwing up there, but then he realized: that other life wasn’t him. But I had a problem… or two. I didn’t know if that character arc was feasible. Once in the Mob, always in the Mob. Isn’t that the case? “The only way outta da Mob is in a pine box.” (I made up that quote, but you get my point.) Then I went to a gun store to, well, buy a gun, and I met the owner: Chris Biller. If this wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was.

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Chris had been an L.A. cop for many years. When he retired he opened Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, California. Chris had been a good cop. He didn’t much care for those guys in the ranks who got chummy with celebrities and who forgot they were still wearing the badge. He had some good stories. But he had one more story that made all the difference in his life (and Johnny’s and mine as well.) His father had been in the Greek Mafia. Chris grew up much like my Johnny Casino character, not that Chris was a hood, but he knew he wasn’t Mafia material. He wanted a different life and he got one. Just seeing the type of man Chris was let me know Johnny would be that type of a guy, too. See what a little research and chance meetings can do.

Something else Chris mentioned was a book I should read about the Mafia called Five Families by Selwyn Raab (copyright 2005). I read the chapters up until the point Johnny would no longer be in the Mob and it gave me great insights into that life. The book and Mr. Biller created a background for both Johnny and his father.

 

Research, no matter if it’s through books, TV shows, movies, personal contact or even jobs the writer might have had to enhance their stories, makes “the read” feel real. After all, we are creating a world within our pages. As for me, I used my dad’s time in the Air Force and the spy planes he dealt with to play a part in my spy trilogy. Then there was my stint as a private detective that helped with my three detective series. But most of all, it was the many, many people I spoke to about the jobs they did and the things they know that enhanced my stories. After all… we can’t know everything. And Research broadens our horizons and helps us create those new worlds.

 

The other problem writers have when researching their subject matter is knowing when to stop writing about what you learned. Too much is just that – Too Much. Don’t bore your reader with so many details you distract from the story. As I tell the students in my writing classes, always ask yourself: Does it advance the story? Does it enhance the story? Is it redundant?  Write on!

 

It’s Never Too Late

A Guest post by P.A. De Voe

(posted by Jackie Houchin)

A few years after my retirement, my first novel, A Tangled Yarn, was published as part of a cozy mystery book-of-the-month series. I had found the opportunity to write for the series through a regional writer’s conference where I met a representative from the publishing company.

I tell you this for two reasons. First, it’s never too late to begin anew and reach for your dream. Second, dreams can come true if you’re proactive. I would never have published that first novel if I had stayed home and just dreamt about becoming a “real” author. I met the publisher’s representative because I had started attending conferences to learn more about the how and what of writing, and to meet agents and publishing companies’ representatives. Even though I am an introvert (a good many authors are), I really believe that joining writers’ groups and attending conferences are invaluable for building our skills, for learning about our business, and for networking.

Since that first book after “retiring,” I have gone on to publish a second cozy mystery, five historical mysteries, and a collection of historical short stories—with a sixth historical novel to be published this summer.

My historical stories are all set in Imperial China, specifically (at this point) in the late 1300s, the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. The first three—Hidden, Warned, and Trapped—is a young adult trilogy that I had been thinking about and working on for many years. My educational background is anthropology with an interest in Chinese culture and traditions. Of course, that was long before I retired from jobs that did not specifically involve much of this training.

So, when I decided to write historical Chinese mysteries, I needed—and still need—to do a lot of research on the time period. I read Chinese literature and whatever scholarly papers or books I can find dealing with Imperial China. I look at materials on the law, economics, religion, art, education, geography, medicine, local and family histories, and more. My research is broad because I never know what’s going to be useful for a story. Criminal case reports are, of course, important because they not only tell me about the why and how a case was handled, they also expose the tensions/stresses in the society at that time. Other areas also provide windows into the social, intellectual, and religious realities for people at that time in history, which are critical for forming believable, historically grounded characters and motivations.

  Also, research is needed to get a realistic picture of what’s happening at the local level, beyond the Emperor’s court. In my newest series, A Ming Dynasty Mystery (Deadly Relations and No Way to Die), I wanted to show life from both a male and female perspective. The male character, Shu-chang, was easy to develop. He’s an amalgamation of striving young men struggling to achieve social and economic success through the long-standing Chinese merit system which was based on an examination process. There are many, many examples of such young men.

The female character, however, was more difficult because I wanted her to be educated and to have freedom to act outside of her home. At the same time, she had to be realistic. I couldn’t simply give her a contemporary mindset in order to create an interesting story. After all, she lived in a period and culture with a different set of expectations for men and women. Fortunately, while reading broadly, I ran across an account of a learned woman who had trained as a professional women’s doctor under her own grandmother. I was able to use her as a model on which to build my character Xiang-hua. I now had a strong female protagonist that I felt was also true to her time and place.

Fortunately for me, I enjoy research, sifting through and collecting historical tidbits. I can easily get lost in the details. However, only a small fraction of what I find interesting can or should go into a story.

As we know, an author has to be judicious in what and how information is used. It has to support what is happening without overwhelming the reader. A story is not the place for an information dump! This is true whatever the genre, but in historical fiction it is particularly important to get the balance right.

The trick is to provide enough detail that readers can easily envision the characters and environment—which may be alien or exotic to them—without being boring or bringing the story to a standstill. Consistently meeting this challenge is a skill that takes practice, and a good reader or editor can be invaluable in helping to correct the balance if and when it goes astray.

Finally, let me add one more thing on beginning to write fiction later in life. I have heard authors say they are compelled to write their stories. That’s not me. I don’t feel compelled. After all, until I retired, I wrote only a little poetry and few short stories or novels. Mostly, I immersed myself in whatever current job I had and in my family life. Once retired, however, I went back to dreams largely laid aside and dusted them off. Writing cozies and, especially, historical mysteries provides constant new challenges for me. Each story gives me a goal to work toward. A new world to share with others. And that brings me true enjoyment.

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P.A. De Voe, an anthropologist and China specialist, writes contemporary mysteries and historical crime stories set in Ming Dynasty China. She’s a Silver Falchion award winner and twice a Silver Falchion award and an Agatha award finalist. Her short story, The Immortality Mushroom, was in the Anthony Award winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks edited by Art Taylor. She is a member of Sisters in Crime National, Tucson Sisters in Crime, the SinC Guppy Chapter, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, St. Louis Writer’s Guild, Saturday Writers, the Historical Novel Society, and Mystery Writers of America/MWA Midwest. Find her at padevoe.com. Her books can be found on Amazon.

Writers on the Road

by Linda O. Johnston

Well, not literally on the road necessarily, but traveling. On vacation. 

Is there such a thing as a vacation for a writer? Yes… and no.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our minds are busy.  Never mind whether we’re sitting at a computer churning out whatever story we are working on. That might not happen as much while we are out of our usual environment.

But yes, we’re writing when we’re not writing. Our minds are at work, observing what’s around us, the environment, the people including possibly our families but also those who are there on vacation too, or locals, or those who are taking care of us at whatever hotels or resorts we might be visiting or cruises we’re on.

It’s all inspiration! No matter what we might be writing at the moment or planning to write in the near future, we’re always open to new ideas that we might head for in the future.

Yes, last time I was here I wrote about a life of strange inspirations. But what about inspirations that aren’t strange, but fun?

So why am I addressing this? Well, last week I was on a family trip at a resort in Cancun. Oh, yes, it was fun. I loved being with family, and the environment was amazing. Extremely windy when we were there, but the brilliant blue water beyond the white sand beach at the place we were staying was beautiful. A lot of generous service from the resort staff. Multi-level swimming pools. Vast buildings around areas where outside entertainment was provided. Even fireworks!

I had mixed emotions about some of it. We’d been to that resort before, and they have a couple of large pools containing dolphins that appear to be well treated considering where they are, but having such smart animals that are originally from vast sea environments contained like that… Well, I’ve researched dolphins. They’re wonderful beings. As smart as humans in their environment. Am I inspired to write about them? I’ve always been inspired to write about them, but definitely not in situations like that—unless they can find a way out and get revenge!

See! My mind was at work while I was relaxing and enjoying my vacation.

How about you? Does traveling inspire you to develop new ideas, new stories, different kinds of things?

By the way, this subject is so vital to me that I’m incorporating it into the three blogs I’m posting on the same day this month. I’m addressing it somewhat differently, but it’s definitely on my mind. Along with my writing.

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Photo by Leon Overweel on Unsplash

WHAT ARE WE MISSING?

by Rosemary Lord

Well, we wanted this year to be different, didn’t we? Or, did we yearn for The Good Old Days of yore: that is pre-Covid? The truth is somewhere in the middle…

For two years, we did as we were told. Because lives were at stake, and livelihoods, businesses, careers. We shut our lives down, following the Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines. We did the best we could.

But now, not a moment too soon, our world is supposed to be opening up again. How’s that working for you?  What are you looking forward to doing, as we get out and about, and happily smile, bare-faced, at each other again?

I don’t know about you – but, as a writer, I really missed all the Writers’ Conferences and workshops. It was a chance to get together with other creative folk from all over the world – writers, publishers, readers, agents – and swap ideas, hear news and get inspired and encouraged once more. Whether we attended in person, participated via Zoom or read about them online. They always made me feel part of a wonderful, chattering, writers’ world.

I loved reading about the conferences far, far away. Especially those sublime Writers’ Retreats in Tuscany, Greece or exotic Eastern islands. I mean, who could afford them? Even the fare to get there? Who had the time? But it was lovely to dream about the ‘one day’ when I had several best-selling novels under my belt and knew I could write the expenses off from my high taxes of my super-successful writing career.

I also learned a lot reading the descriptions of the workshops offered. Some were business oriented, about how the super-successful J. K. Rowlings and her compadres ran their writing careers or businesses. Or had someone else do it for them. Details of the foreign retreats that focused on creativity had descriptions to drool over: the leisurely, dreamy days gazing out on azure seas, after early-morning yoga, while tutors encouraged one to write something totally different from your usual style. To explore hidden corners of our creative brains. A morning of writing would be followed by exquisitely prepared meals of fresh, local produce served ‘en-plein-air’ – in the shade of exotic trees. To be followed by an afternoon saunter to the local farmers’ markets – or perhaps a wine tasting at the local vineyard. Then return to your room for more writing time. That is, if you could stay awake after the food and wine! Those Writers’ Retreats are VERY expensive. But one can dream…

In reality, most of us attend the more practical conferences packed with workshops on different styles and genres, on research, on editing our tomes, and how to wrap them up with an eye-catching pitch. There are always plenty of opportunities to attend agent-lead workshops, meet publishers and editors and hear lectures by our successful counterparts. I used to love listening to the late (and dearly missed) Sue Grafton. She always made us feel that if she had achieved success, then we could surely do the same. Charlaine Harris, Ann Perry, Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Michael Connelly – I could go on – but they all spoke at these numerous events, sharing advice and encouragement for their fellow writers.  

These conferences are held all over the country. The annual Bouchercon was to have been in New Orleans last year but was cancelled due to Covid. I was looking forward to that! This year it’s in Minneapolis in September. The last Left Coast Crime Writers Conference I attended was in Vancouver in 2019. The 2020 one in San Diego was cancelled. This next one is in Albuquerque in April. (I’m moderating a panel of screenwriters and guesting on a panel about Twentieth Century Mysteries.) Malice Domestic Conference will be in Bethesda late April. The International Thriller Writers Conference is June 4th in New York.

There are several more venues for writers to hone their craft and network, including the California Crime Writers, which has gone online due to Covid precautions. There’s something for every writer: romance writers, mystery writers, screen writers, short-story writers. Something for every genre, for beginners and experienced career writers, traditionally published, self-published and ‘pre-published.’ In that long conference weekend, we get to talk about writing, meet new writers and readers, new agents and publishers, learn the latest forensic discoveries, the new publishing trends – and often, we plot how to commit murders that we can get away with! For our literary characters that is, of course! Although that discussion might well happen at the Romance Writers Conference occasionally, too!

            Many conferences were in California, so I would drive to them. But other times I would fly to another state.  Apart from the fun adventure of travelling to these events, I’ve missed seeing my writer friends from all over the globe. We laugh a lot, catch up on each other’s lives, eat a lot – and the bars are always open. It’s a lovely escape – before we return home to our usually isolated writing life. There, we scribble in our endless notebooks, then tap away on our computers – until we have something completed that we can discuss at the next writers’ conference.

So, we’re back to normal – sort of.

Almost.

Yay!

What part of your writers’ life did you miss most these past couple of years?

A Final Pass

by Miko Johnston

By the time you read this, the manuscript for my fourth A Petal In the Wind novel will be back from the editor and ready for its final draft before publication. Prior to sending it out, I made several passes through it, each time searching for ways to fix or improve the work.

In my first pass I searched for everything from formatting issues to misspelled words. In light of recent events I found parts of the story, which I’d begun writing in 2017, had become dated. I couldn’t gloss over a worldwide pandemic and the social rifts that emerged from political discord. Several new characters who were introduced in chapters written years before the book’s conclusion sounded too generic; I’d gotten to know them better as the story progressed and that needed to be reflected in their earlier dialog and mannerisms.

Other passes looked for repetition, excess verbiage, more precise word choices, missed misspellings, lapses in logic, and incorrect information. With that complete, I sent out my manuscript, anticipating a few more changes would be needed once I heard back from my editor. I took advantage of the wait time to put together all the additional material needed – logline, book blurb and synopsis.

Whenever I have to write marketing stuff, I cringe. It’s not what like to do, or do well. I view it as a necessary evil, and many authors I know feel the same way. However it must be done, and the good news: I’ve found an advantage to it beyond promoting the book.

When you have to encapsulate your x-hundred page novel into a one page summary, then a teaser for the back cover, and finally a one-sentence logline, it forces you to look at your theme in a different way. Gone are the long passages of prose, the snappy dialogue, the transitional scenes and flashbacks. You must have a laser focus on what your story is about – what you’re trying to get across to the reader in terms of theme, character, and plot. By doing so you sometimes will see aspects of the story that are important but may not have been shown in a compelling or complete way. So beyond my editor’s input, I saw that I wasn’t done with my revising.

I came to that conclusion when I encapsulated a 106,500 book into a few paragraphs with just a hint of where the story will eventually wind up. I had my external conflict and internal struggle, and pointed that out in my blurb. Then I wrote my logline:

Amidst the social and political upheaval in the aftermath of WWI, a woman who identifies as an artist marries the love of her life, but chafes at being relegated to wife and mother.

We can understand the difficulties a woman would face in giving up her career to marry and have children, especially at a time when such notions weren’t as accepted as they are today. But had I adequately shown how she feels in the book? Could I have made it not only clearer, but on a much deeper level?

The logline hints at the deeper issue. What she rails against is not being married to the man she loves, or even the challenges of motherhood. It’s losing her identity, having to see herself as only a reflection of her husband and children. When Jane marries John Doe, she becomes Mrs. John Doe. Her baby’s mama. She’d wonder—what happened to Jane?

My character Lala is a woman who’s accomplished a great deal despite her youth. She not survived the trauma and hardships of WWI and kept her family alive, but her home town as well. It’s described as a factory town north of Prague throughout the series. In America we’d call it a company town, where a single business – in this case a furniture factory – provides the economic base of the area.  Circumstances force her to take charge of the factory and oversee its conversion to wartime production. If it had closed, which it nearly did, the town would have been devastated. How can someone like this ignore all she achieved, the skills she developed, the talent that resides within her?

When the manuscript returns from the editor, I will review the comments and make some changes, including a few of my own – adding more layers of my character’s internal dilemma to the story. Then I’ll probably rework my promotional material. A writer’s work is never done…that is, until it goes to the publisher.

 

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

Mystery People, Jessica Speart

by Jill Amadio

Few mystery writers pour their personal passion into their fiction to get their message across as successfully and as brilliantly as multi-book author Jessica Speart.  Published traditionally by such as Severn House, William Morrow, and others as one of the most addictive thriller series, the acclaimed American author’s plots are based on true, wildlife issues.

Elephants slaughtered for their tusks, sharks for their fins, rhinos for their horns, and other species for their rarity, many endangered, form the focus of Rachel Porter’s action-packed sleuthing. An agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS), the fictional character is a composite based on real agents who investigate smuggling, murders, and criminals who break the laws that cover illegal species trading.

Casting a worldwide net, Speart sets her mysteries in several American states, and peoples them with characters in Mexico, Russia and other countries where illegal hunting is at its most prevalent such as Hawaii for its rare reptiles and exotic birds in Florida, but what stands out the most is the remarkably meticulous and detailed research that Speart brings to her books. The reader learns a wealth of fascinating facts told in an often-humorous style while at the same time learning how poachers work, the tools needed to trap tortoises, and the clever ruses criminals use that include the rich and famous with their collecting obsessions.

Doing research is essential to my writing,” she said. ”The idea is not to just make things up [but] to provide facts in a compelling way.”

An investigative freelance journalist for several years after studying theater at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, and stints as an actress off-Broadway, in commercials, and soap operas, Speart switched from acting to writing.

“I needed to get away for a while and ended up going to Africa. It was there that I witnessed the poaching of elephants for their ivory and rhino for their horns. I came home determined to do something to try and help.”

Speart took a direct approach and began her magazine career writing stories about the USFWS special agents and their investigations. She became fascinated with their work. Many of her articles involved wildlife and drug-trafficking crimes and were published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

But the subject matter, she discovered, wasn’t high on the list of law enforcement agencies. An animal lover, she decided to take justice into her own hands by starting a crime series, knowing the popularity of mysteries and thrillers could give her topic a voice.

My first ten books are the fictional Rachel Porter mystery series,” she said, “which sprang from my magazine work. I became frustrated with the outcome of many wildlife cases. The illegal trade in endangered species is worth between $15-20 billion a year and yet the fines and punishment remain low.”

In the process Speart became an expert in demand at endangered species conferences, a keynote speaker at a wide range of distinguished forums including the American Museum of Natural History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, chapters of the Audubon Society, and others, and a frequent guest on television shows and documentaries..

“The transition from non-fiction journalism to fiction wasn’t difficult, given the reality of the issues,” she said, having covered cases from initial suspicious behavior to arrest and conviction.

The fast-paced Rachel Porter series begins with what could be considered fragments of the author’s own life. Titled GATOR AIDE, it takes place in the steamy bayous of Louisiana and the New Orleans French Quarter, featuring an alligator chained to a bathtub with a dead stripper nearby. The book’s characters include cops, killers, drag queens, and corrupt politicians.

Speart’s second book, TORTOISE SOUP, crosses the country to a new assignment in Nevada where endangered tortoises have disappeared, while book 3, BIRD BRAINED, sends the USFWS agent back to the southeast coast and Florida, where exotic cockatoos and parrots are smuggled out. The cast includes a wonderfully-rendered sleazy snake dealer, Cuban cigar smugglers, airboat cowboys, and Castro terrorists. The action never stops.

Primates inhabit book 4 and the locale is the Mexican border. Not too surprisingly because they exist in real life, there’s a game ranch stocked with rare antelopes, Indian deer, and African oryx for the rich to hunt down and kill for sport. Rachel Porter unwittingly joins the group on the wrong side of the party.

Caviar, anyone? BLACK DELTA NIGHT explains how Tennessee’s Mississippi River paddlefish becomes a rival to Beluga for the Russian mafia to exploit. This time Rachel goes undercover when murder is on the menu.

While her methods eventually result in catching the criminals, her way of operating tends to irritate her bosses and, once again, she is shipped off to another state. Montana, long known as home to private militias and survivalists, also has more than its share of grizzly bears. But why are they being killed along with several Native Americans? A KILLING SEASON provides a dazzling backdrop to the puzzle.

Books 7, 8 and 9 see Rachel once again shuttled off to other states to get her out of her boss’ hair. This time she is sent to Georgia with its manatees in COASTAL DISTURBANCE, and then to northern California with BLUE TWILIGHT in which a collector is obsessed with a rare butterfly. Again, Speart’s research brings reality to the characters, locales, and plot lines. In RESTLESS WATERS Rachel is back in Hawaii to chase down those who upset the fragile ecological balance.

Book 10 winds up the series with UNSAFE HARBOR involving the importation of illegal Tibetan antelope fur clothing, before Speart turns to non-fiction for her 11th book, WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.

“It deals with an actual case that is so crazy no one would believe it if I wrote it as fiction,” she said. “A Japanese national began prowling around America’s national parks. One butterfly he chased was the Apache Fritillary, catching 500 of them and shipping them back to Japan to sell.”

Following up on the true case she flew to Japan and went undercover to make friends with the man. Soon, she discovered he was setting her up. A thriller, indeed.

Whether writing non-fiction or fiction Speart spends time outlining her books before giving it its freedom. “I’m a big outliner, especially when it comes to writing a mystery. Otherwise, it’s like driving your car through a tunnel without lights on a dark night. You are bound to have an accident.”

She noted that some authors spend a year-sometimes two or three – nurturing their book. “Then comes the morning when we finally have to let go and the book takes on a life of its own.”

Speart finds that releasing a published book is exciting and frightening both at the same time. “There’s the rush of having the published book hit the stores, there’s the fear that no one will like it. But what about those folks who read your book and become angry?”

After BLUE TWILIGHT went on sale a small group of butterfly collectors felt she had attacked them, and, in turn, began attacking her.

“Apparently, I’d hit a nerve,” she said. “I’m not saying butterfly collecting is a crime but there are those who cross the line between collecting legal butterflies versus collecting protected and endangered butterflies. There are instances where even legal butterflies have been over-collected.”

The author points out that there is a class system when it comes to species being valued, and that if they were chimps, tigers and others public reaction would be one of horror. She continues the argument on her website in one of her blogs. She also discusses the difference between the two styles, saying that narrative non-fiction is fact-based storytelling employing some of the same skills that are used in fiction, setting each scene, presenting fascinating characters, and creating a strong narrative persona.

As for specific dialogue in non-fiction, Speart again brings her research to the forefront. It requires, she says, exhaustive digging which is something she enjoys. She also points out that narrative non-fiction doesn’t have to be told as purely objective journalism. Writers can bring emotion to their characters and create a sense of drama while following the story arc.

A few books that fit into the discussion are some of her favorites including In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; The Orchard Thief by Susan Orlean; The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a book that began Speart’s love affair with the city of Savannah.

Jessica Speart teaches an advanced mystery writers workshop in Connecticut, and reminds students: “You have to believe in your work and not give up. Writing is a rough business and not for the faint of heart.

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