Mystery People

by Jill Amadio

CeeCee James was recently a guest blogger here. Her story interested me as a multi-series author. I interviewed her for a UK magazine, and thought The Writers in Residence might like to read what she told me.

Several authors on both sides of the pond pound the keyboard with more than one mystery series but few write as many as bestselling CeeCee James. She has no fewer than seven different series out there. Most of them cozies, their eclectic plots feature pets, farm animals, flamingoes, recipes, a book club, circus life, history, a tour guide, and a host of other characters that people her world.

Her first published books, however, comprised a three-book award-winning series based on her own life that brought brilliant reviews as “heart-breaking, raw, and inspiring.”

Childhood experiences, good and bad, are often expressed in a writer’s fiction whether consciously or unconsciously and can be, say therapists, a way of working through them and letting them go.  In James’s case she frankly talks about her difficult times as a young girl, bringing a compelling depth, compassion, and growth to her characters and her writing.

But why so many series?

“My life has been full of adventures and journeys. We moved 40 times and I attended 10 schools from coast to coast. In all of my works I draw on my own personal struggles, shortcomings, and victories. I had a rocky childhood, and spent time in foster care,” she said. “I feel blessed I’ve been able to realize a childhood dream to be able to share my stories with others. I can’t imagine too many careers that are as rewarding,”

No surprise that her first series was largely autobiographical and based on many of her personal experiences, but then she lightened up and plunged into the world of murderous cozies. Starting with the Angel Lake Mysteries, it centers around new beginnings, marking a significant turnaround in James’s own life. 

“My first mysteries are about the character, Elise, who is starting over and not quite sure where she fits in. Her journey is about finding confidence in who she is. There’s always a little bit of me in these characters, a voice for thoughts I didn’t know I had.” Next James explored the curiosities of hotel life with the Oceanside Hotel mysteries with plenty of humor from a mother and daughter team.

 

Then came the Baker Street Mysteries. Set in Pennsylvania the books feature a tour guide who presents re-enactments of the American Revolutionary War. The author moved on from 1775 to take readers into circus life, with the first in the series titled Cirque De Slay.  

Time to switch hats again, and James produced the Flamingo Realty Mysteries, wherein she blends in a couple of characters from her previous series.

Among reader favorites are the Mooved to Murder mysteries with their covers of cows, lambs and other farm animals, and her books with kittens and puppies. The newest series stars members of a book club in The Secret Library Mysteries

How does she manage to keep them all straight?

“I write one series at a time so that gets all my focus. I time going back to my other mysteries when I’m ready to take a break from my current series. My favorite place to write is curled up in a fat, oversized chair with a cup of coffee and my two mini dachshunds sleeping at my feet.”

A favorite character among the many amateur sleuths? She said that each main character takes a turn as being her favorite at the time, especially when they are going through something she can relate with, and their vulnerabilities make her fiercely protective of them. When she moves on to a new series, she’s infatuated all over again “with a new baby.”

As for choosing settings James said she writes what she wants to read and what interests her at the time. She researches towns and villages looking for small restaurants and shops to get a feel for it and its flavor, many of which she has lived in at one time or another.  She looks up local plants and landscape terrain, and of course researches for toxins and poisons.

A “pantster” rather than an outliner, James finds her stories emerging as she writes.

“I tried outlining and immediately hit writer’s block. I have to have the freedom to let the story lead me. If I am really struggling with it I’ll reread an old favorite like Lord of the Rings, or The Stand. I admire those authors’ skills so much it almost always inspires me.”

The past that has provided grist for the mill drives her intense interest about how other people experience their lives. The pandemic, too, has brought back memories of feeling trapped.

“I was surprised to find that feeling lurking around in my subconscious. I remember the strength and hopelessness of that emotion while growing up. It hit me in a very weird spot.”

In between James’s massive literary output, she paints in several media including watercolor, ink, and acrylics. She also makes miniatures, and crochets during which one imagines her mind is working overtime to plot another crime.

 

Phew! Makes me feel pretty lazy – again.

Things native english speakers know….

…but don’t KNOW they know!

Ajectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-orgin-material-purpose Noun.  So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you will sound like a maniac. 

It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list. But almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before color, green great dragons can’t exist.

Try it in your own writing. Check out your most recent book, or the book lying nearest to you right now. It’s a phenomanon!

Green dragon yard hanging.

 

 

Literary Pixie-Dust

In this short post, I’m indulging myself musing over a realization that hit me the other night—an insight into reading, rather than writing, and for what I’m fancifully calling “Literary Pixie Dust.”

Alas, I’ve never had great eyesight, and with age, it’s gotten worse, so a lot of my “reading” is moving into audio books, or Kindle text-to-speech. Sometimes I’ll also get the book because of the touch and feel…and smell of books. Several nights ago, while falling off to sleep, I was listening to the audio book Light Darkens by Ngaio Marsh and read by Philip Franks, and it hit my conscious psyche[i] that with my favorites like her, there’s “something special” from the very beginning. And that “Something” is not something I remember ever reading or talking about.

But fanciful and goofy as it might sound, there is a “magic”[ii] that takes you into the story—and in that you’re not just reading, not just enjoying, not just picturing[iii]—but your mind is dusted with some kind of story-pixie-dust. Indeed, the characters, the scenery, the plot—including the overarching musicality of the author’s writing that I’ve gabbed about before—all seem to twinkle. (I’m not surprised if you’re laughing by now!)

As I fell off to sleep, I was kind of laughing at myself. Must be the audio experience itself, the book reader, his voice. So, next morning I found my book copy of Light Darkens, and “it” was still there. I could hear it while reading with my eyes. (M.C. Beaton sprinkles the same pixie-dust on her delightful Hamish Macbeth novels.)

It’s similar to several movies I’ve seen during my life that had a “special something” outside of all the good movie-making mechanics like directing, photography, screenplay, casting, etc.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a pixie-dust writer[iv], but I am a reader. And I’ve heard said in so many ways how wonderful reading is, all the places you can travel, all the characters you can meet…but it really is also “magical” for some readers like me. A thought, which led me to feeling so lucky to be involved in the reading and writing world throughout my life.

This was a different kind of rest stop on the winding road of writing for me. But, on that winding road, my writing goal for this year is–to do more of it, and along the way learn as much as I can! Pixie-dust magic is not on the agenda. Indeed, I’m not sure this indefinable (but very real to me as a reader) element is something one can actually learn? Regardless, it would sure be nice to have. Hats off to Ngaio et al.!

Happy Writing and Reading Trails!

 


[i] I’ve read the book in the past, but not heard the audio book.

[ii] I’ve searched my mind (and on line thesaurus for the perfect word)—but it won’t come. Hence “magic.”

[iii] Wrote a post here in the past about pictures left in my mind from some books.

[iv] Even if I dreamed of being such, don’t think my style, characters, or topic lend to that sort of “magic.”

 

Bad Manners

After trying her hand at various jobs including telemarketer for a funeral home, Jacqueline Vick combined satirical humor and the quirks of her ginger mutt to create the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. She is also the author of the Harlow Brother mysteries, as well as some standalone novels. She currently resides in Southern California with her husband. Join her Mystery Buffs Newsletter to keep up on the latest news, or check her out on Instagram.


Thank you, Jackie Houchin, for allowing me to take your spot this week on Writers in Residence and all of the WinRs for having me on your blog. I’m here to give a brief etiquette lesson.

In my Harlow Brothers mystery series, manners rule. Usually. Edward Harlow secretly writes the Aunt Civility etiquette books, and as her official representative and public face, he has to be up on proper behavior. His younger brother, Nicholas, who is also his secretary…not so much.

My description of good manners agrees with Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If you get more specific, you’ll find not everyone agrees on what constitutes proper etiquette.

  • In Brazil, eating with your hands is bad manners. Even a sandwich.
  • If your business meeting is in Germany, you should allow the eldest person to enter the room first.
  • In Japan or India, avoid using the word “no”.
  • In Australia, punctuality is important.

Still not clear? Here are a few examples of proper – and improper – behavior.

In the following example, Cary Grant shows good self control when he remembers, after pulling a fist, that a man should not punch a lady.

Never try to talk with your mouth full. (Even when you are facing a killer who looks like Boris Karloff.)

Arsenic and Old Lace

Under no circumstances is is okay to play with your food.

Public Enemy

Now that we’re clear on the rules, is it ever okay to break them?

In Deadly Decorum, the third Harlow Brothers mystery, Edward is the celebrity guest at a weekend charity fundraiser. When a board member is killed, he comes perilously close to losing everything, including his manners, when a killer decides he doesn’t want the Harlow Brothers investigating the crime and threatens everything dear to him.

Deadly Decorum comes out on May 19, 2021.

Building a Character Arc

                                   by Gayle Bartos-Pool

There aren’t strict rules for writing fiction, but at least one character needs to change in some significant way by the end of your story just to make the journey worth taking. But it doesn’t have to be the main character. If you’re writing a series, whether it’s in book form or a television series, you can take a lot longer to have your main character or a series regular change in some significant or meaningful way. If a character is making a “guest appearance,” they can change dramatically in that one book or show. But whether it’s a novel, short story or screenplay, one character should have a true Character Arc in each outing.

Part 1

So what is a Character Arc?

A main character needs to go through phases during any given story. Usually it’s the protagonist in a movie or stand-alone novel, but sometimes it’s a character very close to the lead character. That person usually has these phases thrust upon them by nature, or willful intent by another character (the antagonist), or by a fatal flaw in that particular character. Or, here’s a fun reason: the character learns something about himself or herself that alters their personality or their way of thinking because of that revelation. Maybe they’re from outer space or somebody else is really their father or they have a twin. This kind of thing can happen to the hero or a major player. It’s how the character deals with it that makes the difference.

Watch old movies and pick out these arcs or phases as the movie progresses. It is amazing how many screenwriters use these phases. They work perfectly in a short story, too.

You will find many books on the topic of the Character Arc. Even if the phases are given different names, the description is pretty much the same.

The Phases:

            Orphan – the character feels alone or is literally abandoned

            Wanderer – the character goes looking for clues or answers

            Warrior – the character decides to fight for what is right

            Martyr – the character risks everything for his ultimate goal

Character Arc from “A Role to Die For” – G.B.Pool

  • Orphan – middle-aged actress starts losing roles to younger actresses
  • Wanderer – she starts looking for one last, great part
  • Warrior – she defends herself against the person who wants that part
  • Martyr – she risks getting caught for doing a dastardly deed, but doesn’t flinch when confronted

Character Arc from The Wizard of Oz

  • Orphan – Dorothy is blown to Oz by the tornado
  • Wanderer – Dorothy wanders around Oz and meets several characters who accompany her on her journey
  • Warrior – Dorothy and her pals have to brave their way through the woods and flying monkeys to get to the Emerald City
  • Martyr – Dorothy dispatches the evil witch and then can’t catch the Wizard’s/Professor’s balloon to get back home. She fears she will be stranded there until she is told she has the power to go home in those ruby slippers.

Dorothy’s Character Arc is also an outline for what is called The Three-Act Structure which is the basis of most every story ever written. Follow:

Act I – A young girl finds herself alone in a strange place; she meets a few characters who are willing to help her in her quest: she wants to get home.

Act II – She is told she must ask the wise man in the city that is far away for help; but someone who wants what she has doesn’t want her to make it to the city and throws out roadblocks.

Act III – She and her new friends have to fight their way through some tough places to get to the city and she ends up saving her friends’ lives; the wise man leaves without helping her; and then someone tells her she has had the means to get back home with her all along – the ruby slippers.

The basic Three-Act Structure (or Beginning, Middle, and Ending) is found in most great movies and books and short stories. It’s simple. It works. It goes hand-in-glove with the Character Arc phases.

Okay, let’s dig deeper into this Character Arc concept.

You know there should be a plan, but how do you know what your character is supposed to be doing in each Character Arc phase? That’s where your Plot comes in. You can’t really have a story without both Plot and Character, can you? If you know roughly where you want your character to go, you can plot/plan/prepare the journey.

Your character(s) must have a destination in Act I, even if they don’t realize they are on a journey when they wake up that morning. In most stories the journey is thrust upon them. They are living their lives when all of a sudden they find themselves out there in the wilderness. In a mystery, the protagonist is either the main suspect or asked to find the clues leading to the real killer and is basically left to their own devises. In other words: Orphaned in the story.

In the Act II they need to gather both clues and maybe some help in order to solve the crime. In a romance, the girl (it’s usually a female in these things) finds herself in a new town or a new job or a new environment like aboard a ship or even a spaceship. The character finds his or her self wandering aimlessly (hence the Wander Arc) and needs to get his or her bearings.

Also during Act II the character (the Wanderer) can learn a few things about himself or about the people around him. This is also the time the character begins to question not only others, but themselves.

It’s during the transition from Act II and Act III (or Warrior phase) when the main character has obstacles thrust in their path. This can be red herrings in a mystery or maybe an earthquake or hurricane or drought in an adventure. Books come in all flavors, so whether you’re writing Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Westerns, Dystopian, or a Contemporary story, this phase comes into play. But it’s also during Act III when the Martyr Arc kicks in. It’s the Do or Die phase. Does the hero succeed or die trying? Not all stories have happy endings, but they should have an ending that fits the story the author is writing. And I do mean that the author has a choice to make (At least at first; more on that subject in Part 2). There is no formula here. Write the ending that fits the story you want to tell.

Along with the Character Arc for either your main character or a character whose life is sort of the center of the story you are telling, there is also a Character Arc for another central character in your story, especially if you are writing a mystery. This is the Arc for the villain. Remember, the villain is the guy or gal who caused all the trouble in the first place. This character sets the action in motion, is introduced somewhere around the early part of the story as just another character, then tries to thwart any solution to the problem during the middle of the story, and is brought to justice or a reawakening of his or her soul by the end of the story. That’s four parts, just like the main Character Arc.

Some writers both past and present will drop in the bad guy right at the end of the story with no early introduction which isn’t fair to the reader or the story. This character has two faces. Usually the first one seen is nice, sympathetic, tries to help find the solution to the problem at hand. Of course, what this character is actually doing is seeing what holes he can patch up before he’s caught. Sometimes those methods are diabolical, but that’s why he’s the bad guy.

While the Wandering hero is gathering friends to help him solve the puzzle, the bad dude is working in the background to make that not happen, sometimes offering to help as well. When the hero becomes the Warrior, the villain has to double-down. Bad stuff starts to happen and the hero has to make serious decisions. The villain already knows what he will do. And it is never very nice.

The last phase has both hero and villain battling to the death, both figuratively and actually in your story. Sometimes heroes die. Again, that’s your call as the writer. But always keep in mind who the villain is and what he or she wants. That Arc will show the reader what kind of person the villain is. Will he sacrifice everything for whatever it is he wants? Money? Power? Or does he just hate the hero because of jealousy? Just keep in mind the villain’s Arc while you are crafting your story. And remember, even if it’s not a mystery, a love story or saga can have one person trying to screw up the life of the main character. And it can be because of love, money or power. Craft that Arc well and you will have a good story.Part Two of this blog will be coming up in a few weeks. Watch for it!