Something New?

by Linda O. Johnston

I love what I write, and I want to do more of it. I’m currently writing for two Harlequin Romantic Suspense series, their long-running Colton books and my own Shelter of Secrets series, as well as a mystery series called Alaska Untamed for Crooked Lane Books under my first pseudonym, Lark O. Jensen. I enjoy them all and have new books coming soon in each of them.

But my mind is at work on, yes, something new. Not sure what yet, but it’ll quite possibly be a mystery series. And it’ll have romance in it. And it’ll definitely have at least one dog.

That’s who I am, and what I write.

How did I become that way? I’ve developed my writing persona over a lot of years, and I write the kinds of things I like best.

But how about you? What is your favorite genre to write in? Your favorite kinds of characters? Any quirks, like mine of including dogs whenever possible? And do your favorite ideas morph over time or stay the same?

Think about it now. If you were going to change what you’re writing, how would you determine what came next? I have to admit I do ponder that a lot, though I recognize I’m fairly set in my ways.

Or do you always try something new? Or do you prefer staying with a particular genre?

I suppose that kind of pondering is part of the creative process. Writers write. And think. And plot. And create characters and stories, and even their own futures, to some extent.

It’s certainly who I am and what I do. And you?

SO – WHAT’S NEXT?   

       By ROSEMARY LORD

Well – a New Year begins – full of promise and excitement.

I think many of us writers welcome a new year in which to fulfill our promises of writing goals. As Hannah Dennison said recently, “write that Big Book”!

It’s a time, after reflection during the holidays,  that we can decide on a new path, a new direction. Renewed enthusiasm.

As writers, we might decide to try a different genre to explore, a new audience to reach, different publishing sources or methods of publication, a fresh approach to promotion. It’s quite exciting, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s time to create a whole new ‘image’ as an author. Of course, there’s a risk of losing loyal followers. So how do you convince them that you’re still keeping that strand of your writing that they enjoy, but you’re expanding to include new themes, character lines, new series. It’s a way of reaching additional audiences.

I’ve been looking at new markets and new approaches. I’ve spent so much time writing about Old Hollywood and its Golden era, maybe I should look at contemporary subjects.

In working my way through my scattered ‘memoir’ project, I realized how many different lives I’ve led, different places I’ve lived, different eras I’ve inhabited.

I thought about those who suddenly took off in a totally different direction and created a new life. A writing life. Often, a very satisfying, successful writing life. Doing something totally different from their earlier success, but following their heart.

Californian Barbara Seranella turned her life as an auto mechanic into wonderful mystery book series featuring Munch Manchini, a female auto mechanic turned sleuth.

Fellow Sister-in-Crime and MWA member, Pamela Samuels Young was an attorney. She yearned to be an author, but her work as Managing Counsel for Toyota required long, long hours. Pamela rose extra early, writing before she went to work, in her lunch hour and on weekends. Eventually her dedication paid off and her courtroom dramas became huge successes. Abuse of Discretion about youth sexting looks into the juvenile court system. Anybody’s Daughter won the NAACP and other awards. Pamela is now a full-time author and, happily, a former attorney. 

British musician Chris Stewart came to fame as the drummer in the band Genesis. In the 1970s Chris decided he’d had enough of touring, enough of cold, rainy, dark English winters and moved to Spain. He and his wife found a remote home in the village of Alpujarras, a region of Andalucia. They bought a ram-shackled hovel and restored it into a simple, self-sufficient rambling home. He helped the local village solve their sheep-shearing challenges and soon became an avid farmer, discovering an amazing variety of local plants, flora and vegetation. Eventually Chris began to write about his new life in Driving Over Lemons, which found a hungry audience of several million readers. Last Days of the Bus Club followed and recently Three Ways to Capsize a Boat.   

National Theatre Company actress Carol Drinkwater, who found fame as Herriot’s TV wife in All Creatures Great and Small and movies such as An Awfully Big Adventure travelled the world as an actress. While filming in Australia she met her French husband, Michel, and wrote her first children’s book Molly, which became a series. Carol and Michel fell in love with a run-down olive farm they bought in Provence, France, and spent years cultivating it into a thriving olive oil business. Carol continued to write. As well as her children’s and YA books about suffragettes, World War I and World War II, Carol was asked to write magazine articles about their struggles in restoring their olive farm. These, turned into books, became a highly successful Olive Farm series.

For the movie buffs amongst us, the late David Niven turned away from Hollywood and moved to Southern France.  He turned a garden shed, overlooking the Mediterranean, into his writing den with two planks of wood across two stacked orange crates for his desk.  Having entertained TV audiences and Talk Show hosts with hilarious tales of his showbiz life, he turned this talent into successful books starting with The Moon’s a Balloon. It became an instant hit. Several other volumes followed.

Another famous actor, Dirk Bogard, also turned to writing. Fed up with ‘pretty-boy,’ Doctor in Love romantic roles, he moved to Europe in search of meatier, serious parts, in The Servant and Death In Venice. From his new home in the South of France came several semi-autobiographical books, based on a lengthy correspondence with an older American woman in the Mid-West. She knew nothing of his acting success, but they wrote to each other about family, the world and many things. She encouraged him to start writing books. Bogard’s letters to her were returned to him after her death, with her request for him to write books based on those letters. A Postillion Struck by Lightning became an instant success, followed by Snakes and Ladders and many more.

It’s curious what happens when we decide to try a new career, when we step off into that unknown. Turn right instead of left. As FDR once said, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”

Are some of us writers (like ME!), going through the motions of a writers’ life, without really living it. Due to Life’s challenges and interruptions, are we just putting one foot in front of the other?

So, what is in store for us this year? Do we try a new recipe, if our writing career is sagging? Do we add a little bit of this, a pinch of that? Do we try something new, experiment with a different approach?

Envious of those writers whose lives hum along productively, what can I learn from them? I am excited to discover what’s next. What will be the new inspiration? I think that this time I’ll get it right!

What about you?

My New Year Resolution: The Elusive “Big Book.”

As January comes around again and, for the fourth year running, I’ve made the same resolution to finish writing my “big book.”

My agent always talks about “when you write the big book Hannah” – but it’s a struggle to get to it. I juggle a full-time job on the West Coast (working remotely from the UK), an elderly mother (not juggling her physically I must add), plus exercise two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas at least a couple of hours a day.

Trying a different genre is always a challenge. For those who don’t know me (yet), I write three mystery series – cozies. I love writing puzzles and of course, the joy of writing a “traditional” mystery is that justice is always served, good conquers evil and if you can make people smile along the way, that’s even better.

Readers expect to solve the mystery. They get caught up in the whodunnit and the page-turning climax but with a different genre and a different kind of reader, it’s a new experience for me.

Rather than rely on my friends to read the current draft of my “big book” (who would be kind), I hired a respected book/script doctor, Lisa Cron.

Well, to say I was utterly crushed is putting it mildly. “I’m sorry but it just doesn’t resonate. I don’t feel anything.” What? How can it not resonate? The story was solid and, although I say it myself, it was quite clever, especially with the final twist. But Lisa was not interested in the nuts and bolts of story. Of course, character development, setting, dialogue etc. are critical since they’re the foundation and cornerstones of the ‘story house,’ but it’s the essence, the soul of the story that is the key to drawing a reader in.

It’s not enough to tell your reader that your character is happy, sad, or angry. That’s too general. As Lisa says, “these descriptions are the what – we need to dig to the why.” If you pluck a scene out of any novel, are you able to immediately tell what your protagonist is going through emotionally?

Just like us, whatever we are worried about or mentally going through, is always at the back of our minds. My mother has been deemed end-of-life at least three times this past year and her health dominates my every waking moment. We don’t live in a vacuum so nor should our characters. And just like us, how would your character’s state of mind impact everything he/she says and does?

Another thing to ponder – who really remembers the twists, turns and intricacies of a good plot be it a thriller or a love story? Yes, we’re caught up in the story especially if it’s a good one, but don’t we just remember how a scene makes us feel? I think back to my childhood and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) – I wasn’t that bothered about the lion and the White Witch, I just wanted to find a wardrobe and wade through some fur coats to meet the Faun under the lamppost.

When I began to develop feelings for the opposite sex, I devoured sweeping romantic sagas like Penmarric and The Rich Are Different (Susan Howatch) and The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy). I don’t remember the plot in the Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) but I do remember that scene on the beach where the priest and Meggie consummate their illicit love. Toe tingling stuff.

In a “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found that To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) ranked second only to the Bible as “making a difference in people’s lives.” Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel,” and former first lady Laura Bush said, “it changed how people think.” But maybe it changed how people felt as they lived vicariously through Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch? The story resonated with readers and, as Lisa believes, “the only way to change how someone thinks about something is to first change how they felt.”

As for my “big book” I’m busily rewriting it. I’m digging into the why of my protagonist and it feels so different to the what. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of courage to excavate emotions of my own that I would prefer to keep buried but I’m doing it anyway.

What books still resonate with you years later and why? Don’t think too hard. I’ve already added a dozen or so books to my original list of favorites! I’d also love to hear tips and suggestions on how you make your writing resonate with readers.

ANDS, NONES, and THANKS

By Miko Johnston

Happy New Year everyone. The holiday season has ended, but the memory lingers for many reasons. Because of all the activity at the end of the year, I limit my writing to holiday messages and thank you notes, but as we always say – writing is writing.

Each year I buy five dozen holiday cards with messages ranging from Merry Christmas to various generic seasonal greetings. It takes a full day to pick an appropriate card and think of something to write in each one that I send to family and friends, but the annual ritual always begins with updating the mailing list before my husband prints out labels. Although I get together, or at least correspond, with many on the list, with some this is the only time of year we’re in contact. The exchange is a way to stay in touch, see how we’re doing, and send good wishes for the holiday and upcoming year.

Revising the list has become a bittersweet part of the process. In the past, most of the changes have been addresses and the occasional addition (marriage, children) or  division (divorce). However, for the past few years, most changes have been subtraction – the painful act of deleting ANDs. Don and Jean are now Don, Bert and Ruth are now Ruth. Some former ANDs become NONEs. When Don or Ruth are no longer with us, the entire entry will have to be deleted, leaving gaps in my mailing list as well as my heart.

The joy of receiving cards offsets much of that nostalgia.  I often get to see pictures of the family and hear about their adventures over the past year.  Some of the news may not be happy, but the contact always is. I set up all my cards along the living room and dining room windows, each one like a handshake, or hug, from someone dear. When I remove them in early January I take a moment to reflect on the cards that are missing, a reminder of those I’ve lost, either in body, or in mind, or who’ve just drifted away.

For me the best part of holiday gifts isn’t receiving them, but writing thank you cards. Like the holiday cards, it starts with finding the right card for the person to be thanked. I have an assortment of stationery with different designs, ranging from charming illustrations to an embossed THANK YOU. I favor classic white or cream notes with matching or coordinating envelopes. Then there’s the challenge of coming up with something fresh, sincere and meaningful to write, just the type of challenge I relish.

I always begin with pen and paper, and write out something I think may be suitable using the three-step method*. I play around with the wording until I’m happy with the results, then carefully copy it onto the note**. Unlike my holiday cards, I always hand write both the recipient’s address and my return address on the envelope. Only the stamp and the card’s design is pre-printed. To me that’s part of the thank you process.

Don’t get me started on how getting thank you notes has become rarer than a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, especially from anyone under 60. However, when I do receive one I treasure it. After reading the note, I study how the sender constructed the message, admire the wording – heck, I admire the attempt! One of the best notes I’d received last year came from the grandson of a cousin, thanking my husband and me for a high school graduation gift. We winged the present based on what little we knew of his interests, but his note expressed such appreciation and gratitude, and so eloquently, that it didn’t matter that he emailed it to us. I’ll happily accept an emailed, phoned or texted note of thanks now. Frankly, some of my younger relatives can’t be bothered to even say thank you, let alone send a written note to us. Only my husband’s intervention kept me from giving them coal for Christmas. But that’s another story.

How was your holiday season? Did you receive any cards or notes that were especially meaningful? And what was your favorite part of holiday writing?

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*Thank the giver, tell them why you’re thankful, then thank them again.

**I have dysgraphia – the writing equivalent of dyslexia.

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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 such as the newly released “Whidbey Landmarks.”

Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Time

by Jill Amadio

Having celebrated the New Year a few days ago I am still curious about one of its major symbols, Father Time.

Appearing in books, paintings, music, film, television, and even as industry logos, Father Time is often depicted as a character with his murderous scythe and/or an hourglass. Such images have been used to remind a reader that Time is a potential murder weapon with the hours running out for a victim, or signifying an imminent arrest.

Time.

It rolls along inexorably despite any means we employ to stop it. But wait! Writers sometimes change Time not only in their fiction but even in non-fiction that one expects to be factual and pure.

How often have you read, “Within three short weeks the memoir was finished.” or “It was the longest hour she had ever spent in his company.” What do these Time phrases mean? What is a short hour, 44 minutes? Or a long year, 15 months? How about this recently published mystery wherein the author blithely bent the passage of Time with: “She knew the hours would pass more quickly if she went to a movie…” How could this be? Obviously, it was her perception in play but seconds, minutes, weeks, months, years, and decades pass at their own pace despite anything we can do to speed it up or slow it down.

In his Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam wrote one of the most dire warnings about Time: “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on. Nor all the piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all they tears wash out a word of it.”   However, a clever writer can give the reader an impression of a faster or slower passage of Time through tension, the building of a scene, or a change in writing style with short sentences, even a single word.

In my favorite, faithful much-thumbed 1,350-page Roget’s International Thesaurus, of which I receive the latest edition every five years as a Christmas gift, there are pages and pages devoted to definitions for Time including Duration, Instantaneousness, Perpetuity, Interim, Anachronism, Infinity, Transience, and, rather oddly, Regularity of Recurrences, and a section devoted to for Previousness (Roget’s heading, not mine, which my Spellcheck rejects), plus many more. In fact, a cornucopia of ways to express how Time moves along at its prescribed pace in any situation and circumstance.

How do we live in borrowed Time – what does that mean? We cannot borrow, stretch, shorten, nor cut Time in its literal sense yet we bandy about this commodity as if it were taffy.

Shakespeare took liberties with Time in dozens of plays and called it a “common arbitrator” and, “a bald cheater’ which I prefer to read in its literal sense although he didn’t intend it that way. The Bard was also the first, I believe, to coin the phrase that Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain borrowed centuries later when he intoned in 1938 there would be “peace for our time.”

How about this one: ‘Time is of the essence.’ Taken verbatim causes one to wonder, which essence? Frankincense, rose water, or perhaps orange peel?  Or do we wish to convey that Time is urgent? If so, why not say so with description to match the action.

Metaphors are wonderful but sometimes they can convey a meaning that the author did not intend, or missed an opportunity to raise the stakes. How often have you read, “Time and again she pulled on the chain/rope/handcuffs.…”  Would the reader enter into a precise Time frame more personally and feel the victim’s agony and persistence more clearly if the sentence read “after six desperate attempts pulling on the chain, she…

All of which reminds us to remain disciplined because – Time is honestly and truly running out! Do you have a secret method for trying to cheat Time?

Happy New Year, everyone! Do not waste a minute of this brand new year. Write!

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Jill Amadio is a mystery writer, novelist, journalist, and ghostwriter. She writes a column for the UK-based Mystery People magazine. Her standalone thriller, “In Terror’s Deadly Clasp,” is based on a true 9/11 story, and her memoir of Virginia Bader chronicles the pioneering of the aviation art movement in America. Amadio co-authored a posthumous biography of the singer Rudy Vallee, and ghostwrote a crime novel. She was a reporter for the Bangkok Post, Gannett Newspapers in New York, and the L.A. Daily News, and has written for Conde Nast, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, Motor Trend, Air Classics, and other publications. Her award-winning mystery series features an amateur sleuth from Cornwall, UK, Amadio’s former residence before relocating to California and Connecticut. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Authors Guild. Visit Jill’s Website 

Another Writing Rest Stop

Hope all of us end this year with wonderful Christmas festivities, followed by a coming year of health, happiness, and good cheer!

On the writing front, I’m still rambling down the writing-road and stopping at another rest stop to do some writing-pondering. Here’s the back story of how and why for this stop. First off, I have a guilty confession—I’ve indulgently watched every Midsomer Murders episode many time. Have on DVDs, consequently I can binge-watch whenever!

The other night, on the DVD I was watching, there was a bonus interview with Carolyn Graham, the creator of Barnaby and the murder mystery series books. During the interview she talks about creating, writing, and thought processes involved in writing in general and this series in particular. And one of the things she emphases in the interview is characters! Of course, music to my ears. For her, the plot comes from the people she creates. Characters come first…then the story.

If you are familiar with the series, there are a lot of characters in every episode—brought to life by outstanding British actors—and they are mostly people you like (a few you don’t}—and among both is a murderer (and you have the fun of figuring out out which one of these quirky characters “done it”)

Then in Maggie King’s excellent post last week, she made what I consider an outstanding statement. “That’s why I write. It keeps me out of prison and my victim(s) safe. And I can create interesting characters I’d never want to know off the page.”

I’ve talked about characters a lot—but Carolyn’s interview brought a new point of view—start with the characters to develop the plot. I’ve mostly started with the story, and created characters I thought fit. And I started with a need to like the characters. Even the murderer, I’ve “liked” on some level. But what about some characters I don’t like. Not sure I can do..?

So/but, I’m starting anew with my latest, Mojave Gáteau–which will come from character development, not plot development. This may not sound like a big deal—but for me, it’s a whole turn around. And I’m writing all these thoughts here because, just maybe, thinking about character and plot evolution might be something of interest in your own writing?

And for us readers, can we tell a difference? I’ve looking over my recently read books and taking a look to see if I can—I’m guessing not.

Thank you Carolyn and Maggie!

All thoughts are welcome!

Happy Writing Trails

Welcome to Mystery Writer Maggie King

Hello everyone!  I’m using my normal posting date to introduce the second of our two new The Writers in Residence bloggers.  Maggie King will tell her story in her own words.  Happy reading!

My Writing Journey: Condensed Version, by Maggie King

Like many young girls I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. I’ll never forget the day my mother brought home The Hidden Staircase after a trip to the P.M. Bookshop in Plainfield, New Jersey.

In sixth grade I started writing my own girl detective mystery and would read the latest chapter to my friends while walking home from school. They enjoyed my creative efforts (they would have told me otherwise; I have no doubt). I wish I still had those stories, for posterity.

(WOW! We wish you’d saved those early mysteries too! A middle grade treasure!)

Alas, I drifted away from writing, and it took a few decades to get back to it. I joined my first mystery book group in Santa Clarita, California in 1993. Aside from Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, I’d read few works by other mystery authors, and I was ready to discover them. Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Jill Churchill, Robert Crais are just of the few who became my favorites.

The women in the book group were lovely—almost too lovely. I hadn’t yet started my writing career, but I knew I was on my way when the what-if scenarios came to me unbidden—

What if these women weren’t really so nice?

What if this was all for show and they harbored secrets, agendas, hatreds?

But it wasn’t until 1996 when I moved to Virginia and took a creative writing course at the University of Virginia that I started writing in earnest. I didn’t forget those nice women—or were they?—from the Santa Clarita book group. I gave them backstories and they became the story prototypes for Murder at the Book Group, my debut mystery featuring Hazel Rose.

Two more mysteries in the Hazel Rose Book Group series followed, along with seven short stories. So far, all are set in Virginia.

Like many mystery writers, I have a strong need to see justice done and set the world right. Mysteries are the perfect vehicle for that. I serve conventional justice in my novels, but my short stories tend to be morally ambiguous, and the justice may be of the vigilante variety. I’m a law-abiding citizen, but sometimes I wonder if justice is better served outside the boundaries of the law. That’s why I write. It keeps me out of prison and my victim(s) safe. And I can create interesting characters I’d never want to know off the page.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever solve a mystery—and I have no desire to—but my sleuths can do anything. Just like Nancy Drew.

When I’m not writing, I take courses (including writing) at Lifelong Learning, work out at the gym, walk, cook, indulge my overly indulged cats, and come up with ways to save money.

(Please share some of those ways to save money in the comments, Maggie!)

Photo: Maggie with Morris

See Maggie’s newest book, Laughing Can Kill You, at Bookshop.org

For this book as well as all her others, see her Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Maggie-King/e/B00HR6MPOO

Thanks Maggie!  We can’t wait to read your first posting, February 15, 2023! Meanwhile, readers can check out Maggie’s BIO under the “ABOUT” button at the top of the page.

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What to Cut Out of Your Story

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Gayle at Bill's House Sept 2022

Hopefully, writers are also readers. We really need to see what others are doing, not to copy their story, but to learn what works and what doesn’t quite get the job done. Thankfully, many writers have their own unique style, though I have read many books that were a tad too much like twenty other authors’ work. Even movies and television shows fall into that category of being like every other show or movie out there. Unfortunately, many current publishers and producers prefer to stick with whatever worked before and won’t venture into a Brave New World. Their loss.

But what if you stick with your original story and don’t want it changed? (1) You don’t sell it to a major publisher/producer. (2) You find a small publisher or studio that doesn’t ask for too many changes. (3) You find a vanity press that lets you do what you want but you don’t make all that much money on the deal, or (4) You self-publish and make even less money unless the winds are favorable and you actually get the recognition you were hoping for. People like Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, Steven King, Charles Dickens, and even Benjamin Franklin self-published. Their books found fame after the initial publication, but they did start out doing the job themselves.

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I have heard many stories about those who sold their work to Hollywood and ended up basically selling their soul in the deal when the entire story was rewritten into something the author wouldn’t recognize. That’s the name of the game. You sell the movie rights to a production company and just walk away with the check in your hand and don’t look back. Really big name writers can negotiate a contract that keeps most of their work intact. Good for them. Some writers might sell the first script/novel/story to Hollywood and if it is a huge success, even if it was gutted and rewritten, their agent negotiates the next deal and the writer keeps his next story intact. Sylvester Stallone didn’t give up his rights on the Rocky movies and it worked out for him. But that isn’t the norm.

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So what does a writer do to keep her story close to what she envisions? If the writer reads a lot of books and watches a lot of current movies and takes note of what type of story any given publisher or producer seems to like, she might gear her story toward that type of writing. That doesn’t mean turning out a carbon copy of the previously published or produced story, but the writer probably should stay within those known parameters. And as I said before, lots of work out there kind of looks the same as everything else you see or read.

Now if you are as frustrated as I am with this nonsense, you will just write your book the way you want, try to find an agent and/or a publisher that likes your work as is. You might be willing to change something on the surface, but if it is a slash and burn request that totally guts your work, you might want to go to another agent and/or publisher, or self-publish.

So what are you willing to cut out of your work? Its heart? Its soul? It’s a tough question to ponder and even harder to answer. Think about it. Write On!

Typewriter and desk

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