An Interview with Morgan St. James

Today, we are pleased to have with us author Morgan St. James. Morgan and her sister, Phyllice Bradner, write the Silver Sisters Mysteries. Their first book, A Corpse in the Soup, is a hilarious cook’s tour through the world of celebrity TV chefs as the two sisters search for a killer. Morgan writes short stories, magazine articles and other books on her own.

Morgan, tell us a little bit about the plot of your most recent book, “Seven Deadly Samovars”.

It starts with Goldie in a state of total frustration because some Russian samovars she ordered haven’t shown up at her antique store in Juneau, Alaska. The ladies at the Russian Orthodox Church want to give one to their beloved priest who is retiring. When the fancy Russian teapots finally arrive, Godiva has come to Juneau with her boyfriend, TV Chef Caesar Romano to attend a birthday party. The samovars arrive the evening of the party, and Goldie quickly realizes she’s gotten the wrong shipment. These are far more beautiful and valuable than the ones she ordered. But Goldie can’t reach the exporter in Vladivostok. When she sells them, people who have the fancy teapots start to die. What makes them worth killing for? The Silver Sister twins and their eighty year old mother and uncle, former vaudeville magicians, have a merry chase trailing the bumbling Russian killers, the Dumkovsky brothers, from Juneau to Seattle to Los Angeles. It’s murder and mayhem all along the way!

Your sleuths are two very different sisters. Goldie Silver is an aging hippie, and Godiva Olivia DuBois writes an advice column called “Ask G.O.D.”. Do these sisters represent you and your co-author and sister, Phyllice Bradner? And which character are you?

We intentionally modeled Goldie and Godiva loosely after ourselves, so we would know how they thought and what they would do. Phyllice actually was just past the hippie stage when she moved to Alaska at age twenty, did dress in vintage clothes and did own an antique shop at one time. Oh yeah, she is also the “salt of the earth” like our character Goldie. She would give someone the shirt off her back as the saying goes, and then ask if she could get them a coat from Goodwill.

That means I’m the model for Godiva…a very loosely drawn model, I must say. The similarities are that I’m more or less a “fashionista,” have lived in Beverly Hills (although not on a fancy estate like Godiva) and, oh yes, I admit to being manipulative. But, I’m not as selfish as Godiva, my wonderful husband will attest that I’m not a widow, and I don’t write an advice column, although Phyllice and I have talked about launching one in conjunction with our novels.

You’re writing partner lives in Oregon. Can you tell us about how this process works? How do you keep the flow? Do you each write different characters or alternating chapters? Also, are there added difficulties writing with a partner?

Besides being writing partners, Phyllice and I are real life sisters. Since we’ve been writing the Silver Sisters Mysteries, when we’re together, we’re often asked if we’re twins. In reality, we are five-and-a-half years apart. She lived in Alaska when we first started writing together, and in place of difficulties that other writing partners might have, our collaboration has brought us very close together as sisters. Before we started the Silver Sisters, we barely knew each other, because she moved to Alaska when she was only twenty. We have become best friends through our writing.

We decided early on that if one of us didn’t feel strongly about something, and the other did, the one with the passion ruled. If we both have differing opinions, we talk it out and make the decision that’s best for the story…not us personally. We also discovered our strengths early on. I am a very fast, prolific writer and she is the consummate editor. We work out the plot and timeline together. Then I draft the chapters and send them to her to edit and add her special comedic touches. If I agree, it’s on to the next chapter. If not, we e-mail back and forth until we’re both satisfied. We also have marathon editing sessions on the phone. Sometimes as long as four hours. And, we try to meet for retreats once or twice a year.

What do you come up with first: a fantastic crime, a brilliant solution, or the wicked bad guy that readers will love to hate?

Since we are both pretty zany, like our characters, I guess we come up with the story line first. Sometimes we have a fantastic character in mind, so we make sure that character has a role. The twists and turns are part of the way we write. In each of the published books, “A Corpse in the Soup,” and “Seven Deadly Samovars,” we thought we knew exactly where we were going—until some great twists occurred to us after the manuscript was finished. We will make changes, if warranted, right up to the last minute. And we make absolutely certain to drop clues along the way. Sometimes they’re very subtle, but they are always there. We think we have the entire plot of our next book nailed, but only time will tell.

You have several Amazon Shorts—short stories available on Amazon.com. Do you write shorts as a release from the novel writing? And are there other types of writing that you enjoy?

You’ve got that one right. I’m a fast track person, and novels take time. I love writing short stories for the instant gratification. Sometimes they’re fiction, like “Saying Goodbye to Miss Molly,” in the anthology, “The World Outside the Window,” and sometimes they are true or based upon truth. Two of my favorites are a story about my mother, “Shopping for Dancing Shoes,” the first story in Chicken Soup for the Shopper’s Soul, and my Amazon Short, “The Second Time Around.” How much stranger than fiction can it be when your mother-in-law remarries her first husband after not seeing him for over thirty years, and it all takes place in a pouring rainstorm at a Mexican wedding storefront chapel called the Casa de Novios? To add to the bizarre situation, my then-husband had been told his father was dead from the time he was a tot. After reconnecting with her first love, one day without warning, his mother handed him a telephone and said, “Say hello to your father.” It was a funny story that begged to be told.

You also co-edit “On the Prowl”, the Nevada Sisters in Crime newsletter, and you pen a column with Mike Dennis, “You Don’t Say”, which tackles misused words. What’s the most common mistake you run into?

People using the wrong spelling of a word, and when that happens it completely changes the meaning of the sentence. We play around with mistakes like that, redundancies, oxymorons, nonsense phrases and more. We have actually just completed a proposal for a full length book of the same title. We think “You Don’t Say” could be to murdering the English language what “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is to felonious punctuation. Keep your fingers crossed that we get a publisher.

What’s next for the Silver Sisters?

Fun, fun, fun! We are about sixty percent finished with the first draft of “Vanishing Act in Vegas.” What secret is Mara the Magnificent, the beautiful headliner magician at the Glitz Palace on the Las Vegas Strip, who happens to be Godiva’s son Torch’s new girlfriend, hiding? Be prepared to laugh your way through our trademark twists and turns to a very surprising ending.

Thank you for taking the time to be our guest. You can order Morgan’s books on Amazon and can visit her at her website .

Review of Seven Deadly Samovers

SEVEN DEADLY SAMOVARS

By Morgan St. James & Phyllice Bradner
Books In Motion, 2009, Audio, 7/CDs, $28.99
Read by Andrea Bates
Review by Jackie Houchin

The second book in the Silver Sisters Crime Caper series moves the action from Beverly Hills to Juneau, Alaska, where Goldie, the more practical of the twins, runs an antique shop for tourists. The trouble begins when a delayed shipment of Russian tea urns finally arrives. Goldie quickly realizes the rare Samovars she unpacks are not the cheapies she ordered. But hey, that’s business.

She keeps one for herself, another goes to her mother-in-law, two to her best friend, one for an elderly priest’s retirement gift, one to her sister Godiva’s boyfriend, Chef Caesar Romano, and the last one to a snobbish woman from a cruise ship. Goldie is pleased by the quick sales and only mildly curious when a customer calls to report something intriguing about the urns.

But the samovars soon grab all of Goldie’s and Godiva’s attention as one customer is murdered and others are attacked and their samovars are taken. The town drunk – a disabled, unemployed elderly fisherman – is arrested for the murder. The sisters know the old coot is innocent and that the murder is somehow connected with the stolen samovars, but the police are not buying it.

It’s left to the sisters to catch the criminals before the last two customers are harmed. But when another innocent person dies they are terrified for Caesar’s sake and race to Los Angeles to use their combined wits and cunning to corner and captured the culprits.

The secret of the samovars is finally revealed…as is a shocking detail about Chef Romano that he would rather have kept classified.

Devilishly clever plots, outlandish names for adorable, well-developed characters, and hilarious alliterative narration are all part of what makes the Silver Sisters mysteries a hoot to read. And in this particular audio edition, the reader’s sense of drama and comic voice characterization add to the enjoyment. (Actually, Ms Bates sounds just like Morgan!)

Page Turners and Finger-licking Recipes

Jackie Houchin, WinR member, photojournalist, book reviewer and theater critic is here to discuss the combination of mysteries and menus. Find out more about her at Jackie Houchin’s News and Reviews.

JH: Why do many “cozy” mystery writers include recipes in their books? Is it because these homey, non forensic mysteries lend themselves to sipping and munching while reading? (Try eating egg salad or spaghetti while reading a Kathy Reich!) Are “cozy” readers more likely to be housewives and moms? And…does anyone ever make the recipes?

Jacqueline Vick: I have to interject here. YES! I’ve made recipes from Laura Child’s Tea Shop Mysteries, and Joanna Fluke is a regular in my kitchen. Her “Sugar Cookie Murder” gave me the best Vanilla Frosting recipe I’ve ever tasted. My husband, who is not a mystery reader, regularly asks me when her next book is coming out because he knows I’ll make some of the cookies. And, after she began to include side dishes, buffet items, and dinner selections, I’ve tried those, too!

JH: Some authors insert the recipes in the text as they write. Others group them altogether at the end. Some list generic ingredients while others suggest name brands. (Is there a product-placement kickback for using brand named ingredients?) Do recipes in mysteries boost sales?

JMV: I have to tell you that I never would have pegged myself as a reader of recipe-inclusive-type mysteries, but now that I have, I’m hooked. Sometimes I’ll flip to the back and look at the recipes first! And sometimes I buy the books just for the recipes. (I’m a cookbook addict.)

I find that I prefer books that include the recipes at the back. I think it stops the story when the characters are discussing murder and then the narration reads, “Then she cracked two eggs and stirred them in.”

In the Tea House Mysteries especially,  the mention of the teas and traditions and menu adds to the atmosphere of the Indigo Tea Shop. You can practically smell the lavender scones. And I’ve started experimenting with teas and tisanes. Very relaxing!

JH: Here’s a partial list of recipe-writing mystery authors, with their series, and a few recipe recommendations. (I know I’ve missed many. The list could go on for pages!)

• Laura Childs – Tea Shop mysteries – includes Tea Time Tips as well as recipes
• Melinda Wells – Della Cooks Mysteries – a fan recommended the Funeral Salad in “Killer Mousse”
• Joann Fluke – Hannah Swenson Mysteries – one fan loves her Pecan Pie for a Holiday Crowd in “Sugar Cookie Murder.” http://www.murdershebaked.com/recipe_index.htm lists ALL her recipes
• Cleo Coyle – Coffee House mysteries – check out Dunkin’ Pumpkin Muffin Tops at http://www.coffeehousemystery.com/
• Susan Conant & daughter Jessica Conant-Park – Gourmet Girl Mysteries – great for young adult readers and cooks
• Rochelle Krich – Molly Blume Thrillers – adds ethnic recipes, like Challah and Latkes
• Diane Mott Davidson – Goldy Bear Catering Mysteries
• Tamar Meyers – Pennsylvania Dutch Mysteries
• Sammi Carter- Candy Shop Mysteries
• Krista Davis – Domestic Diva Mysteries

Some authors mention recipes in their books, but feature them on their websites.

• Jane Cleland – Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries – http://www.janecleland.net/htm/fun/mom_recipes.htm
• Kris Neri – Tracy Eaton Mysteries – http://www.krisneri.com/recipes.html

And then there are cookbooks by or about famous mystery characters and writers.

• The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout – author-tested recipes with quotes & trivia – Nancy Nicholson recommends Green Corn Pudding and Blueberry Grunt
• The Cat Who…Cookbook – from Moose County cooking – Susan Duncan recommends Mrs. Cobb’s Meatloaf
• Dining With Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook – connects the famous stories with the recipes – Ethel Grimes recommends the Potato Pancakes recipe for Chanukah
• The Nancy Drew Cookbook: Clues to Good Cooking – recipes that tie in to the mysteries – Jennifer Tretheway says the Whistling Bagpipe Crunchies are delicious.

JMV: I have to promote the Sisters in Crime Desserticide, which includes recipes AND fun facts about crime. I know they also have a Desserticide II, and both can be found at http://www.sistersincrimela.com/ .

Do mysteries with recipes whet your appetite, or leave you cold? Who is YOUR favorite culinary author? What recipe from a mystery book have you tried…and absolutely loved? Please let us know!

JMV: After reading your post, Jackie, I wondered what kind of recipes an author of traditional mysteries would come up with, so I asked our own GB Pool to give us a few of her own. You won’t find them listed in a Ginger Caulfield mystery, but I’m grateful she’s shared them and I plan on whipping up her Fudge Ecstasies this weekend if I can keep the hubby out of the batter bowl!

Courtesy of GB Poole

Praline Cheese Cake

1 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 Tbs. Sugar
3 Tbs. Margarine, melted
3 8 oz. Packages Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese
1 ¼ cups brown sugar, packed
2 Tbs. Flour
3 eggs
1 ½ tsp. Vanilla
½ cup finely chopped pecans

Heat oven to 350º, combine crumbs, white sugar, and margarine; press onto bottom of 9-inc. springform pan. Bake at 350º, 10 minutes. Combine softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and flour, mixing at medium speed on electric mixer until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in vanilla and nuts. (I don’t add nuts to the cake; they get soggy; I bake them in the graham cracker crust.) Pour mixture over crumbs. Bake at 350º, 50 – 55 minutes. Loosen cake from rim of pan with sharp knife while cake is still warm so it doesn’t crack as much; cool before removing rim of pan. Chill. Brush with maple syrup and garnish with pecan halves, if desired. Makes 10-12 servings.

Fudge Ecstasies

1 12-ounce package (2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts

Grease cookie sheets; set aside. In a heavy, medium saucepan combine 1 cup of the chocolate pieces, the unsweetened chocolate and butter; heat and stir over medium-low heat until melted. Remove from heat. Add eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla and baking powder. Beat until combined, scraping sides of the pan occasionally. Stir in remaining chocolate pieces and nuts.

Drop dough by rounded teaspoons about 2 inches apart onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake in a 350 oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are firm and surfaces are dull and slightly cracked. Watch so they don’t get too done because the dark color doesn’t show a slight burn. Transfer cookies to a wire rack; let cool. Makes about 36 cookies.

Holiday Fruit and Nut Bars

¾ cup sifted flour
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup cooking oil
2 eggs, unbeaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup dates, chopped
½ cup candied fruit
1 cup chopped nuts

Mix and sift first four ingredients.
Make a well and add in order, oil, eggs, and vanilla. Beat
Until smooth. Add dates, fruit, and nuts; Mix well.
Turn into greased shallow baking dish (12x7x2 inches).
Bake in moderate oven (350° F.) 20 50 25 minutes.
Cut into bars while warm. Dust with confectioners’
Sugar. Makes 30 bars.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time Part 2

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 2 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.

Note: Have you suffered from opening-itus? Did you come up with a brilliant solution? Or did you scrap your first line/paragraph/chapter and begin again. Tell us about it!

PART 2 – OPENINGS

Your opening line is the most vital sentence in your novel. If you can hook the reader with it, half the battle is won. The same is true for your first paragraph and chapter. Think about how you browse for a novel. How much do you read before you decide whether to continue, or look for something else? For most readers, it rarely exceeds three pages, and many will decide sooner. The same holds true for agents. If the beginning isn’t strong, nothing else matters.

WAYS TO OPEN YOUR STORY

Openings usually fall into one of these general methods:

1. Mid-action

2. Setting a scene that’s about to change

3. A statement or explanation

Most stories open mid-action – the cop drives to the crime scene, the single mom juggles work and child care, the newlyweds argue on their honeymoon. When writers suggest you begin your novel at the latest possible moment, this is what they mean. Using this method gives the reader a sense of joining a story already in progress. The idea is to get us engaged right away and weave in the details as you continue.

Setting a scene that’s about to change is common in mysteries, thrillers, and war or crime stories. It opens with a picture of everyday life, often so routine it’s almost cliché, or else with a description of a person or place. It may appear calm on the surface, but the reader must sense that this tranquility is about to explode, maybe literally. Think of a little girl in the front yard playing with her puppy just before the pervert snatches her; the woman at the dressing table, dressed for a special evening, deciding which dangly earrings she should wear as the gloved hand wraps the wire around her throat; the travelogue description of an exotic city that takes us along to the market place, where the bomb is about to go off. The key is to imply an approaching change and hold off the revelation just long enough to generate tension, but not so long that the reader begins to scratch her head and wonder where this is going.

The third method may be the most difficult to pull off because it is cerebral rather than dynamic. Using a statement or explanation employs a form of narration, either a nostalgic “I can remember” musing, a description, or a problem. The speaker can be your protagonist, or a narrator. Using this method draws the reader in slowly. It must hold our interest much longer until something “happens”, but if what is said intrigues us, we’ll keep reading.

Let’s see how these methods can be incorporated into the opening of a story:

PREMISE:

Barry, a hard luck kid turned homeless teenager, has always tried to do the right thing. After a chance meeting with a crime boss, Mr. H, he gets drawn into the man’s organization.

Method 1 –

Barry dives into the street to save a six year old girl from an oncoming car. The girl’s father is Mr. H, and when he comes to personally thank Barry for saving his daughter’s life, he learns that the teen is homeless.

Method 2 –

We follow Barry as he scrapes along, searching in dumpsters for food, wrapping himself in newspapers to keep warm, hunting for bottles and cans to recycle for spending money. As he’s rummaging in a trash can, he encounters a gang of wild teens who chase him through the streets. As the gang is about to close in with their bats and knives, they suddenly flee at the sight of a shadowy figure. Barry recognizes him from his picture in the newspaper – it’s Mr. H.

Method 3 –

Barry explains to us that thirty years ago, when he made the fateful decision to join Mr. H’s crime family, he knew it would play out in one of two ways. Now it’s over, and he’s free. The story commences in a flashback, but the reader has to wait until the end to learn if Barry’s fate was literal (he escaped that life) or figurative (he’s dead). The same would be true if he tells us he’s imprisoned; we’ll have to read the book to find out if he’s literally in jail, or imprisoned by his notoriety, his lifestyle, or something equally symbolic.

Each version introduces Barry in a different way, not only in terms of method, but in our first impression of his character – heroic, vulnerable, or wise. Which method works best? That depends on the theme, where you’re taking the story. If you haven’t figured that out yet, then consider the following:

• Why does Mr. H. offer Barry the position, and why does Barry accept?

• How long does it take for Barry to decide?

• Does Barry accept the offer easily, or is he conflicted about it? Does he say no at first?

• Will he eventually regret his decision? If so, why, and if not, why not?

• How does Mr. H. approach Barry; as a surrogate father, a seducer, or as a business man?

• Will this begin as a tenuous relationship and become closer, or the other way around?

• Are you writing this in Barry’s POV alone, or will there be other POV characters?

Answering these questions will guide your decision.
Now read the opening sentence or paragraph of your novel. Are you satisfied with it? If not, try these exercises:

o Pick a dozen or more books in the genre you write and read their opening paragraphs. Which method did the author use? Which openings grabbed you right away, and why? Which ones didn’t?

o Reread the beginning of novels you’ve enjoyed. How does the first paragraph relate to the rest of the book? Does it set the tone for the story? Does the first chapter mirror the ending?

o Decide which method best describes how your novel begins. Then write a new opening sentence or paragraph using each of the other methods. Which version works best?

o You can break down the exercise even more – write an opening sentence for your story using:

o A generalization

o A surprise

o Dialogue

o Action

o A problem

o Reminiscence

o A description

Use at least five of these methods and rank them from strongest to weakest.

How much description is enough and how much is too much? We’ll explore that next week in ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS.

Reviews of Pamela Samuels-Young, Shiela Lowe, and Alice Zogg Books

There are so many fabulous books out there, and we’d like to take this Monday to catch up on some reviews for authors who have appeared as guests on our site. We hope you find these reviews helpful. Enjoy!

 Buying Time
by Pamela Samuels-Young
Goldman House Publishing, 2009, $14.95

Review by Jacqueline Vick

Pamela Samuels-Young has written another grip-your-seat-and-hang-on-for-the-ride book. Her chapters, filled with tension and twists, are short and brisk and leave the reader anxious to know what happens next.

In her first standalone novel, “Buying Time”, Samuels-Young introduces a new set of characters. Angela Evans is the bright but socially insecure Assistant U.S. Attorney heading a task force to investigate fraud of the most nefarious kind. The insurance policies of terminally people are being bought up by a company dealing in viatical settlements–they offer desperate people much needed money for their final days. Angela believes the company is pressuring sick people to sign away their policies for peanuts.

Enter Waverly Sloan, a recently disbarred attorney. He needs money to hang onto his materialistic wife, and viatical brokering for Live Now is a lucrative business. At least until his clients start dying ahead of schedule. Suspected of murder, Waverly’s troubles have only begun.

As usual, Samuels-Young’s characters have depth. While there are definite bad guys, many of the characters who are involved in shady activities are layered people, even likeable when they’re not selling crack or embezzling funds. And even when her characters make choices that cause you to scream “Don’t do it!”, their actions are the result of reasoning rather than fortuitous acts to make the plot work.

Samuels-Young is a master at raising the stakes, and just when you think the worst has happened, new complications set in.

Warning. The book begins in a very dark place. The reader is not only dealing with murder, but the hopelessness of terminally ill patients, and that can make for a depressing read. This discomfort is a tribute to Samuels-Young’s skills at creating a believable world, and once the action picks up, you’ll be so focused on the fate of the living characters, you won’t have time to feel sorry for the initial victims.

DEAD WRITE
By Sheila Lowe
Penguin Books, 2009, Paperback $6.99

Review by Jackie Houchin

Sheila Lowe’s latest Forensic Handwriting Mystery delves into the emotionally volatile world of matchmaking and makes anything you’ve watched on reality TV seem frivolous by comparison.

After a guest appearance on a local faux-news show brings her media attention, Claudia Rose receives a job offer from Baroness Olinetsky in New York.

The Baroness, who runs a world-class matchmaking service for the rich and powerful, needs a new handwriting expert. Her previous graphologist “made bad mistakes” and there were “consequences.”

Since a lot of Claudia’s work is for employers looking for good hiring matches Claudia sees how graphology could be helpful in the love-connection business. Still, something in the Baroness’ story makes Claudia hesitate.

Learning that the previous expert was her arch-rival doesn’t help. But a job is a job, and Claudia, who needs some “space” in her relationship with LAPD detective Joel Jovanic, accepts the offer.

In New York, when Claudia analyzes handwriting samples in the baroness’ client files, she finds many markers for violence that her predecessor ignored. Concerned about possible problems, she brings it to her employer’s attention.

Reluctantly the Baroness admits that there’s been a rash of “accidental” deaths among her clients.

Considering her findings, Claudia views the deaths as highly suspicious. But alerting the police is out of the question according to the Baroness, who claims the publicity would destroy her business.

Although Miss Rose says repeatedly that she is a graphologist and not a detective, her impressive investigative skills kick in as she works to uncover the person responsible for what she believes are four murders. But the killer has a lot to lose if caught and is determined to eliminate Claudia first.

Lowe’s list of credible suspects and well-place red herrings keeps us guessing about the villain’s identity till the end, and then, with only a few pages remaining, she delivers one more shocking “Kapow!”

Lowe’s expertise as a handwriting expert gives her books authenticity. From tics, t-bars and twisted loops, to dot grinding and word crowding, readers get a fascinating insider look at the tools and techniques used in graphology. It might even prompt them to look for homicidal tendencies in their own handwriting.

Note: Loyal readers to the series will see one of Claudia’s dark fantasies realized in this book. Hooray!

WRITTEN IN BLOOD
by Sheila Lowe
New York, Obsidian/Penguin, 2008, Paperback $6.99

Review by Jackie Houchin

Forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose is back in her second mystery, WRITTEN IN BLOOD, and she sharper, tougher and more tenacious than ever. In this installment, Claudia is hired to authenticate the signature on a contested will.

Her client is Paige Sorensen, the widow of a wealthy older man who died following a series of debilitating strokes. His children, a pair of psycho-twins, believe their young and beautiful stepmother forged his signature on the will so she could inherit the estate, which includes the prestigious Sorenson Academy. Paige is headmistress of the school for “emotionally challenged” celebrity children, and wants it to continue. The twins have other plans for the property.

Claudia meticulously follows the prescribed steps to verify the signature on the will, giving readers a fascinating insider’s glimpse of what’s involved in the process. But in the tense courtroom scene that follows, her findings are challenged by the prosecution’s so called “expert.”

Impressed by Claudia’s expertise, Paige invites her to the Academy to speak to the girls about her profession. In class, she meets and is curiously drawn to a deeply troubled student named Annabelle. With Paige’s approval, Claudia attempts to help the girl through graphotherapy – specific hand movement exercises combined with therapeutic music – but before any success can be measured, tragedy strikes.

Claudia is soon locked in a violent maelstrom of greed, jealousy, revenge and murder. Her detective boyfriend is miles away working on his own case and Claudia must use her professional training as well as her wits to stay alive and to stand between the innocents and the monsters that pursue them.

Lowe’s first hand knowledge and experience as a graphologist are evident in her writing. She weaves in the several aspects of her profession – signature authentication, personality analysis/behavior profiling, and graphotherapy – so skillfully that readers are entertained and yet come away with a new respect for the science.

WRITTEN IN BLOOD is a fascinating and complex murder mystery that keeps readers involved and guessing till the exciting climax, and then adds a teaser epilogue to assure them that there’ll be more books in the series.

The Fall of Optimum House
by Alice Zogg
Aventine Press, 2007, $15.95

Review by Jacqueline Vick

R.A. Huber is an unusual sleuth. She’s sixty-something, petite, and as at home on skis as she is in a silk suit. So she’s the perfect choice to help ex-model Iris Camden and her former football star Jeffrey, owners of the exclusive Optimum House—a modeling school, weight loss center, and escape for the elite.

Someone’s been playing practical jokes on the residents of Optimum House. At first the pranks are harmless, such as hiding the principal’s alarm clock, but when a movie star’s diamond bracelet goes missing, Iris thinks it’s time to call in a private detective. There’s also been serious tragedy at Optimum House–the accidental drowning of a maid—and Iris worries about the emotional impact this will have on her clients. After all, they come there for a peaceful escape.

Huber accepts the assignment, but she surprises Iris when she sends someone else in her place. Antoinette “Andi” LeJeune, a young, leggy redhead who once asked Iris for a job, would easily fit in with the modeling students. Andi is thrilled to have the assignment, though she knows nothing of fashion and beauty. She soon makes friends with her roommate Cyrilla and a young health client, Troy.

Andi reports her findings back to Huber regularly, but when Jeffry Camden is beaten to death on the golf course and young Troy is sent to the hospital, Huber comes to Optimum House, personally.

She finds the staff frightened and the clientele uneasy. Parents are pulling the students out, and the high-paying patrons are ready to leave.

Before Huber can unmask the killer, tragedy strikes again. Will she be able to stop a fourth murder? Or will that murder be her own?

Optimum House moves at a quick pace because Zogg keeps her chapters short and crisp. The characters have secrets, some of them startling, and the addition of assistant Andi added depth to the investigation. A perfect book for that holiday flight.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time Part 1

Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time is a tutorial brought to you by Miriam Johnston

Part 1

Sure, you can write. You’ve created a logical plot and interesting characters. You’ve even been praised for some of your passages. However, your work lacks the professional polish of a best seller or critically acclaimed novel.

Welcome to LEARNING THE BASICS “CHAPTER ONE” AT A TIME, a self-help tutorial designed for writers who want to take their work to the next level.

Most writers aim to improve their skills by taking classes, attending writers’ conferences, reading books and subscribing to journals. All tend to emphasize the same points – and we’ll cover many of them in this tutorial. What’s unique is that we’ll focus on our own first chapters as a way to identify common mistakes and correct them with a two-fold approach:

• tips and advice gathered from the best instructors, editors, and writers
• DIY exercises to help identify weaknesses and correct problems

We’ll review basic methods for beginning a story – what they are, how they’re done, and what they should accomplish – and evaluate them in relation to our novels. In addition, we will discuss modifiers, telling instead of showing, and dialogue, using our first chapters to illustrate the strongest and the weakest elements of writing. Each tutorial will offer writing exercises to help slim down and tone up your chapters. Once you get your first chapter in shape it can serve as a guidepost for the rest of your novel.
Let’s begin by reviewing some fundamentals every agent wants you to know:

PART 1 – PRESENTATION

Nothing screams amateur more than a manuscript that is sloppy and substandard.

Can’t read that? Neither can an agent.

Submitting work in an unreadable font guarantees a rejection. How many deals collapse for something so petty and preventable?

It’s one thing to economize by using recycled paper or printing two-sided copies for an informal writer’s group or for your own use. However, it’s never acceptable to submit pages to an agent or other professional that don’t follow acceptable standards such as margins, font type and size, spacing, chapter headings, spelling, and grammar. It shows disregard for the work, as well as for whomever you’ve asked to read it, whether it’s a fellow writer, proofreader, or prospective agent. Get in the habit of using professional formatting whenever you write. That attitude should begin on page one and never waver.

FORMATTING AND TEXTUAL ERRORS IN MANUSCRIPTS

1. Using a non-traditional font or font size
2. Cheating margins or line spacing
3. Starting a new chapter on the same page as the previous chapter
4. Submitting streaky photocopies or poorly printed copies of your work
5. Flawed, stained, or mutilated pages
6. Typos

HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM

1. Pick a classic, easy to read font such as Times New Roman or Courier in 12 point.

2. Double space your copy and allow for one inch margins all around. Never break that rule, even if the last word in the chapter falls on a new page. Try editing out a word or two instead.

3. Always begin a new chapter on a fresh page and halfway down (some blank page gives the illusion of a faster read).

4. Use a good printer, preferably laser, although a high quality inkjet may be acceptable. If you’re not using a fresh cartridge and there’s any grey in the text, switch it out and reprint as many pages as necessary. Use only white paper.
5. If you encounter any of these problems on a page – redo it. You don’t want your manuscript rejected because of a smudge or crease on page 7, but it happens.

6. Proofread your manuscript at least twice before sending it out. If possible, get fresh eyes to proof it as well.

Before you send out pages or a manuscript to an agent, always verify whether a hard copy or electronic copy is preferred. Then give them what they want.

I’m always shocked by writers who think they can flaunt the rules. Perhaps the most arrogant are those who say they don’t concern themselves with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Writing, like any vocation, has its tools. Can you imagine a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic boasting about their lack of the most basic of skills?

We all begin with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are used to form words, then phrases. Then, with the help of grammar and punctuation, we create sentences, paragraphs, pages, scenes, chapters, and novels. Our tools should also include a dictionary, thesaurus or synonym finder, and various books on style and grammar.

Anyone can write, but to write well, you must spell your words correctly, so we can recognize them. You must understand what those words mean, so they’re used in the proper context. You must learn the correct use of punctuation and grammar, so we can understand what you’re writing. Finally, if you choose to break the rules, have a valid purpose for doing so – spell a word phonetically to highlight the speaker’s accent, or incorporate poor grammar into a character’s dialogue to show his lack of education, for example.

The next installment, OPENINGS, will cover that important first paragraph of your novel.

Photo: Gary Phillips, Marilyn Meredith, and Marci Baun at California Crime Writers Conference