Memoir: What it is/What it isn’t

By guest blogger, Alison Wearing

I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not…Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.” 
Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth

It used to be that only famous people wrote about their lives: retired politicians, Hollywood personalities, rock stars. They wrote their memoirs; they still do. The aim of a person’s memoirs is to cover as much of a life as possible, to draft an overview that touches on all the essential points: family, education, relationships, influences, crucial turning points, successes, failures, accomplishments. Memoirs can also be called autobiographies.

More often than not, memoirs and autobiographies are structured chronologically, and generally, we are drawn to read them because the authors (or, in the case of ghostwritten autobiographies, the subjects) are people already familiar to us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing an autobiography, as long as your intended audience is your family or those close to you (unless you are famous, in which case your fans await your story!).

I once had a woman in one of my workshops who was creating a handwritten and hand-bound autobiography, complete with sketches of floor plans of the houses the family had lived in, paintings of significant buildings, black-and-white photographs. It was a magnificent creation and will be a priceless treasure for her family and future generations. Those of us in the workshop enjoyed paging through the volumes, admiring certain drawings and photographs, but the story itself didn’t invite or include us. It was a series of details that had relevance only to the people involved in the life described. For what it was, it was spectacular. I don’t want to detract from that approach and the author was very clear about what she was doing and for whom. The reason she joined my workshop was to learn how to write more personally, to delve into the realm of communicating emotion rather than simply the facts. I’m not sure she’ll choose to include that kind of writing in her book, but her family might treasure that intimacy if she does. Either way, this kind of a work isn’t a memoir. It’s an autobiography. It’s the whole kit and caboodle. It’s the wide-angle photo of a life.

An autobiography can be a beautiful endeavor, but it is markedly different from a memoir. For while an autobiography is the story of a life, a memoir is a story from a life.

A memoir may visit different parts and elements of a person’s life, but the intention is not to tell or describe the whole thing. It may deal with a period of time, a place, a relationship, a journey, or several of those things, but the story is delineated, it has a container far smaller than the span of the writer’s life. A memoir has a focus; ideally, it has a clear and narrow focus. And paradoxically, the narrower the focus, the greater the freedom the writer may have to talk about the breadth and fullness of her life. We’ll delve into that more deeply when we get into structure, but for now, let’s just cover the basics of the genre.

In addition to a clear focus, a memoir has, at its heart, a transformation of some kind, a shift in perspective or understanding, a new way of seeing one’s life, a place, a relationship, the world, whatever the theme of the story.

In this way, a memoir often chronicles an emotional journey of some kind, a departure from one aspect of oneself and an arrival at another (often more enlightened) state of being. The author might be trying to achieve resolution, to solve of a problem, or to achieve a higher understanding or acceptance of circumstances, events.

Or, as Mary Karr, author of the now-classic memoir The Liar’s Club, puts it: “In a great memoir, some aspect of the writer’s struggle for self often serves as the book’s organizing principle, and the narrator’s battle to become whole rages over the book’s trajectory.”

The “battle” Karr refers to may take a variety of forms, and it might not be a dramatic fist-fight-of-a-battle so much as a peaceful and gradual unfolding. It could be a recollection of travels written from a broader perspective than what was available at the time.

It could be a revisiting of a traumatic incident from a place of recovery or empathy. Whatever its focus, a memoir is more than just an honest account of an event or a time, more than a simple recounting of events, more than a detailed reportage of a journey from A to B.

It is an effort to make sense of—and perhaps make peace with—an aspect of the writer’s life.

It is an exterior and interior expedition, a quest for meaning.

“Memoir is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it.  Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea.”                                                                                     ~ Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project

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Alison Wearing is a best-selling, multiple-award winning writer, playwright, and performer.

She is also the creator and facilitator of Memoir Writing Ink, an interactive online program that guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.

Do you have a personal story you wish to write?

Do you wonder how to craft your story to make it compelling reading for others? Or how to structure it so it holds together? Or how to write about difficult memories? Or how to write truthfully about something that happened decades ago? Or what to do if someone else remembers the same events differently, or if they don’t want you to write your story?

These questions can paralyze us, but that doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, those same questions can be the doorways to the finest iterations of your story.

If you’d like to learn more about her 12-week course, visit: Memoir Writing, Ink

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Alison also leads Memoir Writing Retreats – next up is in Tuscany, Italy in October 2022 and in April 2023.  Interested?  Tuscany Retreats

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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.

Every Day is Valentine’s Day 

by Maggie King

For lovers, every day is Valentine’s Day. But February 14 is the official day when Cupid’s arrow strikes and big business rakes in billions spent on candy, flowers, jewelry, and fine dining.

How did Valentine’s Day get its start? Who was St. Valentine? Good questions, with no easy answers. The history of the saint and the day that honors him is murky, to say the least.

Pope Gelasius I established St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th century to pay homage to two saints named Valentinus who were martyred on February 14. Some believe there was only one saint. A popular legend has it that Valentine was a temple priest who was arrested after ministering to Christians being victimized by the Roman empire. While in prison, he fell in love with a young woman who may have been the warden’s daughter. Before his execution, he sent her a note and signed it “Your Valentine.”

When Emperor Claudius forbade young soldiers to marry, another legend was born: Valentine was beheaded for performing secret weddings for the soldiers.

And then there’s Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival celebrated from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15. Some say the festival inspired Valentine’s Day.

There’s a suggestion of romance in these stories, but the link between romantic love and Valentine’s Day is credited to the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. In the middle ages couples expressed their love with handmade paper cards (valentines). In time, factory-made cards became available; but Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo. came on the scene in 1913 and made the holiday the big business it is today.

How do the characters in my Hazel Rose Book Group Mysteries celebrate Valentine’s Day? I’ve yet to set a story in February, so I can only guess. But my main characters, Hazel Rose and her husband, Vince Castelli, would certainly celebrate the day in style.

In Murder at the Book Group, the series debut, Hazel describes Vince as her on-again, off-again lover. She attributes their sporadic relationship to their inability to get along. She doesn’t offer details as to why they don’t get along but the reader can guess that the real problem is Hazel’s cold feet about committing to a permanent relationship. She’s been married four times and isn’t eager to make a fifth trip to the altar, only for the relationship to sour soon afterwards. Does she love Vince? She doesn’t want to commit to that either, but she definitely has a soft spot for him.

When Carlene Arness dies after drinking poisoned tea at a book group meeting, Vince finds out that Hazel was there. He’s surprised by her determination that Carlene didn’t commit suicide and dismayed that she’s hell bent on finding the killer on her own. Someone needs to protect her and he figures it might as well be him. Hazel doesn’t make that an easy task.

At first, Hazel sees Vince as a liaison with the police (he’s a retired homicide detective), but soon realizes that she needs him for more—much more.

Will solving the mystery of Carlene’s death put Hazel and Vince on the road to happily-ever-after?

If you read #2 in the series, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, you will know the answer is “yes.” They married in beautiful Costa Rica. Hazel becomes a successful romance writer. The very name Hazel Rose conjures romance.

Hazel and Vince are best friends who respect each other and share a great passion. The passion is only suggested. I close the bedroom door on the reader.

Marriage definitely suits this couple. But they do have conflicts, the main one being when Hazel goes off on her own. Vince knows he can’t stop her from investigating, but he has her promise to always have him or another friend with her. But Hazel manages to find spur of the moment sleuthing opportunities that she can’t pass up. She knows she has to mend her ways. Trust is very important to their relationship.

The book group members don’t fare as well as Hazel and Vince in the romance department:

  • Hazel’s cousin Lucy (the “perfect” one) is having marital issues in Laughing Can Kill You, #3 in the series. She was very happy with her husband Dave until a chance discovery made her question his faithfulness.
  • In the first two books, Sarah Rubottom was married to a paraplegic Vietnam war veteran who was an outrageous flirt. In Laughing Can Kill You, he has died and Sarah chooses global travel over romance.
  • Trudy Zimmerman is the ex-wife of the victim in Laughing Can Kill You. She almost remarried aboard a cruise, but her fiancé dumped her (figuratively) for another passenger. Trudy is happy on her own.
  • Eileen Thompson has no romantic interest and is content without one.
  • Lorraine Popp’s own mother calls her an “old maid.”

The characters outside the book group are also unlikely to celebrate Valentine’s Day in any big, or even small, way. In the Hazel Rose mysteries, marriages and relationships are plagued with infidelities, addiction, women with bad boys, men with bad girls. There are women with husbands in prison. There’s a woman with a husband who may not even exist!

Then there’s the colorful and free-spirited Kat Berenger. Kat enjoys casual flings with a number of men. Perhaps she and her lover du jour exchange valentines.

Of course, I’m writing murder mysteries. Conflicts, misunderstandings, and unrealized expectations can lead to murder. I can’t have too many happy and romantic couples like Hazel and Vince.

Now my mind is abuzz with ideas for Valentine mysteries. I can see Hazel and Vince finding romance and murder while zip-lining in Costa Rica.

Happy Valentine’s Day+2. Because every day is Valentine’s Day!

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Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries and short stories set in Virginia. Her story, “The Last Laugh,” appears in the recently-released Virginia is for Mysteries III anthology.

Maggie is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, International Thriller Writers, James River Writers, and is a founding member of the Sisters in Crime Central Virginia chapter. Maggie lives in Richmond with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys walking, cooking, travel, film, and the theatre. Visit her at MaggieKing.com.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieKingAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authormaggieking

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POSTED FOR MAGGIE KING by Jackie Houchin

Space to Write

Guest Post by Hannah Dennison

Thank you so much for inviting me to Writers in Residence today. As it happened, just last week, I was a writer in residence … if you can call hunkering down in my friend’s converted coal shed in the wilds of Wensleydale, a “residence.” It’s a six-hour journey by train but worth it.

My friends have a small farm and I have an open invitation to stay whenever I’m on deadline. I have known this wonderful couple, since we were all just 21. They are fiercely private otherwise I would announce their names in big bold font.

The day starts with eggs from their own chickens for breakfast, followed by four hours of solid writing, a break for lunch, a nap, a walk on the Fell, tea with homemade cake. After another hour or two of writing, the sun is over the proverbial yard arm and it’s time for a gin and tonic.

From the original coal chute window, I have an uninterrupted view of red squirrels (it’s a red squirrel sanctuary), sheep, (this is the home of Wallace and Gromit after all), and, when I’m lucky, I can enjoy watching the hares who really do box.

But, if it sounds like I need peace and quiet to be able to write, that’s not strictly true. One of my favorite books is “Becoming a Writer” by the formidable Dorothy Brande. She urges all writers to train themselves to be able to write at a specific time and anywhere, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. I can write in a departure lounge, a train station, definitely on a plane, in fact, more or less anywhere.

I was listening to a panel of authors discussing the pros and cons of listening to music when they write. I can’t but I can write to the sound of a coffee shop! I subscribe to an app called Freedom. Not only can you block distracting websites on your Internet for set periods of time—in my case it’s the dreaded Daily Mail—it also has a white noise “coffee shop” feature with the low hum of voices and the occasional hiss and burble from the espresso machine! You can also choose the location of your coffee shop such as Stockholm, Berlin, New York or San Francisco. Believe it or not, they all sound very different.  Another author admitted that she writes to the sound of a World War Two Flying Fortress just cruising along (no bombs dropping) from Mynoise.net.

Although it’s great to have the ability to write anywhere, I truly believe in having a dedicated space only for writing—even if it is the size of a cupboard. My space is the tiny guest bedroom. I pushed the narrow single bed against the wall and made it into a day bed. If I have visitors (which is rare), then I take sleep there with two huge dogs and give up my bedroom.

Speaking of dedicated spaces, just before the pandemic I taught a writing retreat on a small island called Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Among the participants was a wonderful Methodist minister who shared how he always approached his writing with a ritual. He liked to put something on the back of his chair—usually a scarf. It was a way of indicating to the creative muse that he was entering his space with intention. I adopted that idea too and, unless I’m in the departure lounge where I’d most certainly be given “looks,” do this 99% of the time.

Since I mentioned Tresco, I wanted to share my latest release, Danger at the Cove (An Island Sisters Mystery), the second book in my new series. I mention it because I was inspired by the beautiful setting of this remote resort, twenty-eight miles off the southwest Cornish coast. I was also intrigued by the idea that there is no police presence, no cars, no streetlamps and no hospital. I have it on good authority that seasonal workers are usually running away from something or hiding from someone. I couldn’t think of a better location to set a mystery. The series is about two sisters who find themselves chatelaines of a crumbling Art Deco hotel on a fictional island in the Isles of Scilly and naturally, murder and mayhem ensure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing to music or white noise and if you do have a dedicated writing space, what can you see from your window?

Thank you so much for hosting me today.

BIO

British born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas.

Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable)

Social Media Links

https://www.hannahdennison.com

https://twitter.com/HannahLDennison

http://instagram.com/hannahdennisonbooks

https://www.facebook.com/HannahDennisonBooks/

Two Murders in One Book: A Story-Within-a-Story

by V.M. (Valerie) Burns

Each book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series features a story-within-a-story. My protagonist, Samantha Washington and her late husband, Leon, dreamed of quitting their jobs and owning a mystery bookshop. When her husband dies, Samantha realizes life is too short not to follow your dreams. So, she quits her job, buys the building she and Leon always dreamed about, and opens a mystery bookshop. Owning a bookshop that specializes in mysteries was a dream Sam shared with her husband. However, she also had another dream. She dreamed of writing British historic cozy mysteries, which she does to fill her time after her husband’s death. Each book in the Mystery Bookshop mystery series includes two mysteries, the mystery that Sam is solving in her real life and the British historic cozy mystery that she’s writing.

People often ask, what inspired me to write a story-within-a-story. The truth is this series didn’t start out that way. When I first started to flesh out the idea for the series, my initial plan was that the only murders would take place in the book that my protagonist was writing. I didn’t plan on having Sam solve a murder in her personal life at all. This is where I got the title for the first book, THE PLOT IS MURDER. My theory was that it would be more realistic that way and I wouldn’t have dead bodies littering the streets of the small fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan. However, I wondered if mystery readers would be satisfied with that. Then, I had my eureka moment. What if, I had two mysteries? The protagonist would solve a mystery in her life AND there would also be a murder to solve in the book she was writing. As a mystery lover, I thought that would be a book I would want to read. As an author, I wondered, what was I thinking? It’s hard enough to write one mystery. How was I going to write two?

I tackled the task of writing two mysteries in every book the same way you eat an elephant—one bite at a time. When I started, I didn’t have an elaborate plan (or much of a plan at all). I knew I wanted parallels between my two storylines. My thought was that writing the British historic cozy would help my protagonist (Samantha) solve the mystery in her real life. So, if Sam was faced with a locked room mystery, then there would be a locked room mystery in the book she was writing. 

Another common question I get is whether I write the stories separately or simultaneously. For me personally, I write in sequence. I have friends who can write scenes out of order. However, I can’t do that. I have to write in order. Occasionally, I get stuck (it might be more than occasionally) and I have to move forward and come back and finish a scene later, but that’s about all I can do out of sequence. It’s probably just a personal quirk (I’ve got quite a few). 

My best advice for writing, whether it’s a story-within-a-story, a stand-alone, a series, short story, whatever, is to figure out what works for you and do that. Writing isn’t a one size fits all activity. Just because one method works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Each person and each writer is different. Writing a book from beginning to end is hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to be someone else. Also, keep in mind that everyone doesn’t like the story-within-a-story concept. I’ve heard from readers who found it distracting and have told me they skip the British historic cozy. I’ve also heard from readers who prefer the British historic cozy over the contemporary mystery. Every person is different with their own unique likes and dislikes. It will be impossible to please everyone. As a writer, all you can do is focus on writing the best book you possibly can. Keep your fingers crossed. With perseverance, hard work, and a great deal of luck, your dreams can come true, just like Samantha Washington.

Tourist Guide to Murder_TRD

While visiting the land of Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Samantha Washington finds herself on a tragical mystery tour . . .
 
Sam joins Nana Jo and her Shady Acres Retirement Village friends Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae on a weeklong trip to London, England, to experience the Peabody Mystery Lovers Tour. The chance to see the sights and walk the streets that inspired Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is a dream come true for Sam—and a perfect way to celebrate her new publishing contract as a mystery author.
 
But between visits to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel district and 221B Baker Street, Major Horace Peabody is found dead, supposedly of natural causes. Despite his employer’s unfortunate demise, the tour guide insists on keeping calm and carrying on—until another tourist on their trip also dies under mysterious circumstances. Now it’s up to Sam and the Shady Acres ladies to mix and mingle among their fellow mystery lovers, find a motive, and turn up a murderer . . .

You can read more about Samantha Washington in the other Mystery Bookshop Mysteries.

THE PLOT IS MURDER

READ HERRING HUNT

THE NOVEL ART OF MURDER

WED, READ, AND DEAD

BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER

Purchase Link

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About the author

TOURIST 62C

V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in Northwestern Indiana. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, Southeast Mystery Writers of America, and is on the national board for Sisters in Crime. V.M. Burns is also the Agatha Award nominated author of The Plot is Murder, the first book in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series; and the RJ Franklin Mystery series. She now lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles. Readers can keep up with new releases by following her on social media.

Website: http://www.vmburns.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vmburnsbooks/

Instagram: https//www.instagram.com/vmburnsbooks

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/v-m-burns

 

This article was posted for V. M. Burns by Jackie Houchin.

 

How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Oh, The Places My Mind Has Been

 by Paty Jager

I’ve been writing since I was a child. I started writing plays for our stuffed animals, then an ongoing story with two friends. When I had small children, I discovered I could make money writing freelance human interest stories for the two local newspapers.

My mind has always been filled with stories. It was several years after I started writing on a regular basis, that I realized I didn’t daydream about family members coming to harm anymore. My husband drove a semi-truck for thirty years of our marriage. Before I started writing, my mind would dredge up all these horrible things that happened to him each time he was out on the road. Once I started writing every day, those went away. I had put my imagination to better use.

My first book, let me rephrase that. The seventh book I wrote, was contracted by a small press. Yes, I didn’t sell my first attempt at writing a book. It took me 7 manuscripts before I had crafted a book that a publisher wanted.

Even though the first two books I wrote were mysteries, it was a historical western romance that was contracted. The book hadn’t started out as a series, but the hero had four brothers and once readers started asking for the other brothers’ stories, well, what could I do! The first book, Marshal in Petticoats, started the series titles: Outlaw in Petticoats, Miner in Petticoats, Doctor in Petticoats and Logger in Petticoats. Then I wrote three standalone historical western romance books. Improper Pinkerton, I had hoped to make into a series about the Pinkerton’s, but it didn’t fly off the shelves or onto ereaders.

I have always been interested in the Wallowa Nez Perce, the band of American Indian that summered and wintered in the county where I grew up. We had a rodeo each summer named after Chief Joseph, but that was the only time I ever saw a Native American in the county. Other than the ghost of a warrior I saw one day while riding my horse on the mountain behind our house.

Spirit-Box-Set1-3500x3420-1000x977My inquisitiveness started me digging into their history when agents at a writer’s conference said they were looking for historical paranormal. I came up with my Spirit Trilogy. Three siblings of a northern band of Nez Perce with blonde hair and blue eyes that turned red with their emotions (my research discovered this northern band), who had become spirits. They are shapeshifters. Through them, I showed the history of the Wallowa Nimiipuu, as they call themselves.

Historical Western Romance seemed to be taking a hit and not selling well. I was complaining about it at a Romance Writers of America meeting and one of the other authors said, then write contemporary western. I said I didn’t think I could. Lo and behold, on the two hour drive home from the meeting, a radio show host talked about how kids had used their parents’ credit card to order items on the internet. And Poof! I had an idea for a book. That was Perfectly Good Nanny which won an EPPIE award for Best Contemporary Romance in 2008. I wrote another contemporary western romance, Bridled Heart. They are both stand alone romances.

Then readers were asking for more Halsey Brothers. I decided to move forward in time and wrote stories for three male secondary characters who had been brought into the Halsey family. This is the Halsey Homecoming series. Each character is finding their way back home to Sumpter and the Halsey family. There is also a novella, A Husband for Christmas. This is a female secondary character’s story.

MayanWanting to write Action Adventure, I wrote the Isabella Mumphrey Adventures. She is a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver. The first book, Secrets of a Mayan Moon, she is in the Guatemalan Jungle. I became friends with a Guatemalan blogger who helped me make sure the book sounded authentic. I LOVED writing this character. She had three books. Then, again, even though the first book won the Reader’s Crown in 2013, the books are slow selling.

Mail Order Bride books became popular, but I thought they had been done over and over, so I came up with a sort of mail order husband series. Letters of Fate. In these historical western romance books, the hero receives a letter that changes his path and leads him to the woman he marries.

Ditto my Silver Dollar Saloon series. These are historical western romance, where the heroines are women who are taken in by the saloon owner when they are found starving, sick, or beaten. As they heal both in body and in mind, they find they can love and be loved again. They are redemption stories.

I finally felt confident enough to go back to writing mystery books in 2014. I wrote the first three Shandra Higheagle Mystery books and released them three months in a row in 2015. I love writing what I had always wanted to write, and I love that readers are enjoying the books. Shandra is a Native American potter. She is only half Nez Perce and wasn’t raised knowing her father’s heritage. This aspect made me feel confident I could write her because I could discover more about her family right alongside of her as I wrote her books. I have a friend who lives on the Colville Reservation where Shandra’s family lives. Number 14 in this series just released. It is set in Kaua’i Hawaii. I vacationed there last year and used it as a setting.

Murder of Ravens  The other mystery series, is the Gabriel Hawke Novels. Hawke is from the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. He joined the military, came home, and became an Oregon State Trooper. Fifteen years ago, he became a fish and wildlife officer with the Oregon State Police in Wallowa County. Remember that place from earlier in my post? I grew up in Wallowa County, I love the rugged, ruralness of it for a mystery series. And what better character to solve mysteries than a master tracker, with roots in the area. His forefathers summered and wintered in the valleys and the mountains.  He is not only protecting the animals and land for the law but for his ancestors. To be sure I had this character’s occupation written correctly, I rode with a Fish and Wildlife State Trooper in the county for a day. He gave me a notebook full of information and ideas for stories. I’m currently writing book 5 in this series. It is set in Iceland, a place I visited last year. When I discovered they held a large SAR (Search and Rescue) conference every other year, I knew I had to bring Hawke to Iceland.

As you can see, I tend to write what is strongest in my mind. And if they don’t sell, well, then I move on to something else. Right now, the mysteries are doing much better than the romance. My calendar for 2020 is to write only mysteries.

What genre(s) do you like to read? Why?

My latest release:

Abstract Casualty 5x8Abstract Casualty

Hawaiian adventure, Deceit, Murder

Shandra Higheagle is asked to juror an art exhibition on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

After an altercation at the exhibition, the chairwoman of the event, Shandra’s friend, arrives home with torn clothes, scratches, and stating she tried to save an angry artist who fell over a cliff. Shandra and Ryan begin piecing together information to figure out if the friend did try to save the artist or helped him over the edge.

During the investigation, Shandra comes across a person who reminds her of an unhealthy time in her past. Knowing this man and the one from her past, she is determined to find his connection to the dead artist.  When her grandmother doesn’t come to her in dreams, Shandra wonders if her past is blinding her from the truth.

https://books2read.com/u/4XXLke

Author Paty Jager (2)Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 43 novels, 8 novellas, and numerous anthologies of murder mystery and western romance. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Paty and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. Riding horses and battling rattlesnakes, she not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it.

blog / websiteFacebook / Paty’s Posse / Goodreads / Twitter / Pinterest   / Bookbub

 

Jackie: To read my review of the first Gabriel Hawke mystery, see – Murder of Ravens

 

This article was posted for Pati Jager by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Me? Write a Memoir? But…!

by Gail Kittleson

Decades ago, some friends invited us to go rafting on a local stream. I thought our son, three years old at the time, would be excited, but he said,

          “I’m scared of those rabbits, Mommy.”

          “Rabbits?”

          “Yeah. Evelyn said we’re going to come to some rabbits…”

Those rapids would’ve scared me, too, if I thought they might hop into our raft. After a bit of explanation about the mild rapids, our son loved rafting.

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Misunderstandings often ground our fears, and this proves true with writing. Being afraid to express our anxieties in black and white originates in false assumptions:

  1. What we write may be used against us.
  2. There’s a ‘right’ way to write, and we haven’t learned how.
  3. Once we write something down, we’re bound to the perspective we embraced at the time.
  4. Once written, our words will be “golden,” and therefore, we can’t destroy them.

          First of all, what we write may be used against us. But this is no reason to forego all the benefits of the process. Writing in a safe place that no one ever sees has done wonders for many people experiencing trials.

The feeling that we have no control over who might see what we write can keep us bound by the tide of emotions swirling inside us. Launching out to safely journal our thoughts, tied irrevocably to those emotions, may seem beyond our power.

          In order to take this tentative step, we must unlearn the second misconception, that there’s a ‘right’ way to write. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No perfect method for expressing what we feel exists.

In fact, the ‘perfect way’ will be the way our words come out. Each person’s story contains unique content, since it comes from our one-of-a-kind inner being. Each of us perceives even the identical situation with variations.

A family outsider, my sister, or my brother will see what I remember differently than I do. But my first feeble step—even if that amounts to writing one short paragraph about what’s transpiring inside me—unleashes immense healing power.

          Now to the third misnomer: we are not bound by our viewpoint at any given time. A glance around us reveals that everything changes constantly. The only constant is change, as they say.

If I still looked at what I experienced fifteen years ago with the same eyes, I would be in big trouble. But the thing is, I would never have arrived at my present perspective if I hadn’t started writing down my thoughts and feelings.

          At the time, my journal pages seemed somehow sacred, and they were. But as the years have passed, I’ve grown, and at certain points, I let go of certain writings from the pasts. Burned them, because they no longer seemed ‘golden.’ Some of them, I kept and edited. And re-edited, and re-re-edited into a memoir. That’s not the route for everyone, but proved to be an important part of my journey.

The point is, your writings are your writings. You have the right to choose what to do with them, including chucking them down a sinkhole never to be seen again.

And the broader point is that in the darkness of an emotional avalanche, we cannot even know what we think. By allowing words to flow from us, we invite clarity, and through this process, discover truths we would never have imagined.

Words equal an enormous gift—penned quietly in secret places, they blossom like hidden desert plants that bloom in darkness, where no one observes. But their flowers bear perfume, attracting the necessary insects for pollination. It may be that we will rework and launch our writings into a published memoir, but either way, this practice can become a powerful experience.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than You.” 
Dr. Seuss

 

Gail Kittleson 2

When Gail’s not steeped in World War II historical research, writing, or editing, you’ll find her reading for fun, gardening, or enjoying her grandchildren in Northern Iowa. She delights in interacting with readers who fall in love with her characters.

Gail Kittleson taught college expository writing and ESL before writing women’s historical fiction. From northern Iowa, she facilitates writing workshops and women’s retreats, and enjoys the Arizona Ponderosa forest in winter.

catching up

Catching Up With Daylight; a Journey to Wholeness, is Gail’s own memoir. She and her husband began renovating an old house after he returned from a deployment in Iraq.  The book is “a gorgeous tapestry of non-fictional thoughts. This very gifted author knows how to weave her thoughts, memories, and the history of the old house she is refurbishing into a journey of emotional and spiritual wholeness.”

 

Women of the Heartland, Gail’s World War II series, highlights women of The Greatest Generation: In Times Like These, April 2016, With Each New Dawn, February, 2017 A True Purpose (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and Word Crafts Press, December, 2017.)

 

  Cover_APuroseTrue    With Each New Dawn    In-times-like-these
Visit her at the following social media sites:

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NOTE: This article was posted for Gail Kittleson by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

Starting a New Series

by Elise M. Stone

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I put that dream on hold for decades while I got married, had a family, and built a career. It was one of the many things on my “someday” list. Then 9/11 happened, and I realized that “someday” might never happen. If I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get started.

I’ve written nine cozy mysteries in two different series over the past few years. Cozies generally have a romantic subplot, and mine are no different. While writing the last book, I realized I was enjoying writing the romance more than the mystery. What if my next book was a romance novel instead of a mystery? An intriguing question, which I decided to answer.

I began 2019 by starting on a sweet historical western romance series for a change of pace. This has been coming for a long time. Years, in fact, although I didn’t realize it myself at the time.

I have trouble sleeping. In the quiet, my brain is like a hamster on one of those spinning wheels. It thinks of all kinds of things it should not be worrying about at midnight. I have to distract it in order to fall asleep.

OTRW-TotTROne of the things that helps is listening to a podcast of Old Time Radio Westerns. Before most of the classic western series of the 1950s and 1960s were on television, they were on radio. I grew up with those TV series, so the stories, while different, are very familiar. Now I fall asleep to the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke or the less-familiar Frontier Gentleman.

I’ve been absorbing these stories in my dreams for at least two years.

I find the time between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, when cowboys and outlaws and marshals were in their heyday, fascinating. The legends in themselves are romantic.

But I’d forgotten how hard it is to start a new series in a new genre. There are new characters in a new place in a new time.  The people are like cartoon outlines with indistinguishable features. They’re not even wearing any clothes. They’re white blobs like the Pillsbury Doughboy. This is quite a change from going back to my senior citizens in the fictional town of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona, characters I love who live in places I’ve visualized dozens of times.

Another stumbling block is the historical aspect of this series. I often find myself stopped with questions like when did the railroad arrive in Tucson? (1880, which means I can’t use it because my story takes place in 1872.) Or did Philadelphia have mass transit in 1872? (It did: a horse-drawn streetcar.) Or handling issues of diversity for today’s sensitive audience.

The biggest threat to the settling of southern Arizona was Apache raiders. The attitude of most back then was that the only way to solve the problem was to exterminate the Apache. This was the opinion of not only whites, but Mexicans and the Papago, an Indian tribe now known as the Tohono O’odham. In fact, these three groups banded together and massacred a group of over ninety Apaches, mostly women and children, in a peaceful settlement outside Camp Grant in 1871. But not all Apaches were peaceful, and they were a serious problem for the ranchers and miners and homesteaders in the late nineteenth century.

And then there’s the romance plot itself. I bought several books on how to write a romance novel because—ahem—I’d only read one or two of them prior to this year. Unlike cozy mysteries, where I’d read hundreds over the years before I tried to write one, I had no gut feel about how a romance needs to work. A lot of times, I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark.

I know, eventually, the whole story will start playing itself out in my head faster than I can type. I’m looking forward to that stage because that’s when the magic happens. In fact, it happened for a time his past week as I was writing a scene and the characters started interacting in a way I’d never thought they would. I love when that happens. So I’ll keep pushing forward, stumbles and all, because I’m addicted to that magic.

And I love a happily ever after.

 

 

Elise StoneBest Photo Reduced Size Lavender Background 2Brief Bio:

Elise M. Stone was born and raised in New York, went to college in Michigan, and lived in the Boston area for eight years. Ten years ago she moved to sunny Tucson, Arizona, where she doesn’t have to shovel snow. With a fondness for cowboys and westerns, Arizona is the perfect place for her to live.

Like the sleuth in her African Violet Club mysteries, she raises African violets, although not with as much success as Lilliana, who has been known to win the occasional prize ribbon. Elise likes a bit of romance with her mysteries. And mystery with her romance. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while she writes.

Elise StoneAVC Series Six Books
Elise M. Stone
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Elise M. Stone’s article was posted by The Writers In Residence member Jackie Houchin.

The Importance of Setting

Guest Post by Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

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