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

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

by Elaine L.  Orr

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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)

How to Write a Humorous Book (a not-very-serious version)

An Author Guest Post by Marc Jedel

People always ask me about my writing process for my humorous murder mystery series. They’re interested in how I get the ideas and how these turn into a novel. “Magic,” I tell them, but that rarely suffices. Some authors seem to swim in an endless pool of plots and characters, effortlessly plucking out one plot twist or character arc after another until they’ve burned through their keyboard.

Not me.

So how does it work for me?

Research. That’s a fancy term for my process. I start by collecting funny anecdotes, interesting people or snatches of overheard conversations. Back in the days when I used to leave my house, I would add notes to my phone about what I saw in daily life. (Don’t worry if you see me hanging around now, I’ll be wearing a mask.) I also change the names and exaggerate—or combine—the incidents to protect the guilty.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that I pay much more attention to my surroundings than I ever did. I also have become more willing to approach strangers and ask them questions. Who’d have expected that the solitary life of a writer would make me more social?

Plot. As plot ideas smack me in the face, I jot them down before I forget. My extensive study of bestselling books clearly highlighted the importance of having a plot. All those other successful authors must be on to something. I try to come up with ideas for challenges to throw at Marty (my protagonist) and then think about how he might solve the case despite those problems through his powers of self-delusion, attention to detail, and the inability to leave a coherent voicemail message.

Characters. Once I developed the concepts for a few of my regular characters, I find myself wondering how to make life more difficult for them during the course of the book and how they’d react to unexpected situations. Having my novels take place over the course of about a week has been a deliberate approach to force myself to increase the pace and make the characters act and react more often.

Humor. By setting up an imperfect character who’s not particularly good at the one thing the reader expects him to achieve in the story, and then making his life hectic, I’ve found plenty of opportunities for situational humor. Personally, I’ve always been better at coming up with a quick, funny comment in the moment than telling canned jokes. I can never remember punchlines so there’s no chance of my doing standup comedy even if I were funny enough.

Dad Jokes, Puns, Shakespeare Lines and Lyrics as Humor. These make me laugh as I’m writing my stories. Writing can be a long and lonely process, and editing even more boring. My dog is great company but not the best conversationalist so I have to entertain myself as I go. Sometimes that spontaneity happened months ago and I wrote it down and sometimes it comes to me as I’m writing. Typically, the use, or misuse, of parts of music lyrics as dialogue hits me on the spot. Same for most of the puns. Fortunately for readers, my editor is awesome and she removes the attempts at humor that aren’t quite funny enough.

A while back I read a good article about famous Shakespeare put-downs and quotes. That gave me the idea to develop a key character in my third novel, SERF AND TURF, who plays the Bard in Renaissance Faires and tries to use Shakespeare’s quotes whenever possible. He wound up as a fun character who starts off as a suspect and winds up … well, you’ll have to read the book.

Outline. Some writers are ‘pantsers’. This means they fly by the seat of their pants, writing without a detailed plan. Not that they wear pants. Some authors probably do wear pants when they write. That’s kind of a personal question best unasked of an author, especially in these days of shelter-in-place.

I outline. I admit to it. If I didn’t, I’d still be trying to figure out how the book would end, or who gets killed. Creating an outline with each scene on one line of a spreadsheet helps me to look at holes, try to spread out when different side characters show up, and make sure the action keeps moving forward at a good clip. Then I go through all my notes and put most of the notes into the relevant scene so I can include all the right amount of humor as well as balance tense vs wacky situations. Once that’s done, there are no more excuses. It’s time for the next stage.

Write and Edit. This part sounds simple — write, edit, repeat.  Eventually magic makes it good.

My books in the Silicon Valley Mystery series, starting with Uncle and Ants, are humorous murder mysteries. The first three are available as audiobooks from Tantor Audio almost everywhere that audiobooks are sold. The books can be read standalone but I think you’d enjoy reading all 4 of them—and probably enjoy it even more if you buy copies for everyone you know. I know I would.

Silicon Valley is not your typical cozy mystery locale and Marty Golden doesn’t fit the normal profile of a mystery protagonist. Despite finding himself thrust into challenging situations, Marty isn’t exactly hero material. He brings a combination of wit, irreverent humor and sarcasm mixed in with nerdy insecurities, absent-mindedness, and fumbling but effective amateur sleuthing skills. With an active inner voice and not a lot of advanced planning, he throws himself into solving problems. Sometimes, he even succeeds.

Hit and Mist, book 4, was just released on May 8 and can also be read standalone. The books are free to Kindle Unlimited readers. Buy them on Amazon at: amazon.com/gp/product/B07PHNT7XM.  For more about my books or me, please visit www.marcjedel.com.

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Bio for Marc Jedel

Marc JadellMarc Jedel writes humorous murder mysteries. He credits his years of marketing leadership positions in Silicon Valley for honing his writing skills. While his high-tech marketing roles involved crafting plenty of fiction, these were just called emails, ads, and marketing collateral.

For most of Marc’s life, he’s been inventing stories. Some, especially when he was young, involved his sister as the villain. As his sister’s brother for her entire life, he feels highly qualified to tell tales of the evolving, quirky sibling relationship in the Silicon Valley Mystery series.

The publication of Marc’s first novel, UNCLE AND ANTS, gave him permission to claim “author” as his job. This leads to much more interesting conversations than answering, “marketing.” Becoming an Amazon best-selling author has only made him more insufferable.

Family and friends would tell you that the protagonist in his stories, Marty Golden, isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination for Marc, but he accepts that.

Like Marty, Marc lives in Silicon Valley where he can’t believe that normal people would willingly jump out of an airplane. Unlike Marty, Marc has a wonderful wife and a neurotic but sweet, small dog, who is often the first to weigh in on the humor in his writing.

Visit his website, marcjedel.com, for free chapters of novels, special offers, and more.

Uncles ants    Chutes Ladders    Serf Turf   Hit and Mist

 

(To read my review of Serf and Turf, click here)

 

 

 

This article was posted for Marc Jedel by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

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