Mystery People

by Jill Amadio

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

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

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

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

But why so many series?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

How does she manage to keep them all straight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Phew! Makes me feel pretty lazy – again.

"Truth or Consequences: The Perils of Ghost Writing" by Jackie Houchin

Jackie is a retired photo-journalist, a book reviewer and blogger. She loves to travel and read, and has a favorite, very intelligent cat named Story (what else?). She is involved in her church ministries for children and the elderly and admits to being a “sinner saved by God’s grace.”
  
 Awhile back I was approached by a friend who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some writing for him. He and a couple friends were building a non-profit website that would feature true stories by everyday people who volunteered to share how they came to faith. The website would be called Real Christian Testimonies (http://realct.org/rct/).
Rick explained that while many people had amazing stories, most were not writers. He needed me to interview and “ghost write” their stories, using their own words as much as possible. (He and his friend were interviewing men; he needed me to write women’s testimonies.)
His request excited me. I had been a journalist for several small local newspapers over the previous years and I enjoyed meeting new people, discovering their unique stories and writing about them. (See my earlier ‘Writers in Residence’ blog post on interview techniques at: http://bit.ly/1LKyVvf ). Although this was not quite what I had done before, I thought I could be good at it and agreed to try.
Rick sent me a packet listing their mission statement, what each story should include, and a release form for the interviewee to sign after reading the final draft of her testimony. This was something I’d never had to do as a reporter, but it made sense. The privately owned website was concerned with accurately telling the person’s personal truth; something you can’t always say about newspapers.
After I wrote a testimony and got it approved, I would submit it with the signed release form and a headshot photo of the person (or an image of something pertaining to the story, if they did not want to be photographed). The website owners would give final approval.
 I was eager to get started.
I had a woman I admired in mind, so I approached her with the idea. She agreed and we set an interview time and a place. She was a college professor now and I knew she’d be a stickler for accuracy, so I took my tape recorder. Then I forgot to turn it on! Boy was I rusty! I’d jotted down only the main points of her story, so when it came to writing it, I had to email her with many questions. Talk about embarrassment! But I learned my lesson. Which each following interview I took meticulous notes.
I wrote up her story, edited a few things at her request, got her approval, and then submitted it. I was eager to see “my story” (although I had no byline) on the website. Rick, however, sent it back by return email for further editing. Huh?
I learned that I could not mention well-know people by name or the specific places connected to them, even though they were an integral part of the testimony, I’d shown them in a positive light, and I hadn’t quoted them. Why? Because I would have had to get permission if their names were included. Wow. That never happened in newspaper stories. Public people were just that… public. Rick also said that the website wanted to stay as “main stream” as possible, without promoting one denomination over another.

I rewrote the sections he mentioned, ran the edits by my professor again, had her sign an additional release form and resubmitted. This time it was approved.

The next two testimonies I wrote ran the same gamut with slight differences. I had minor areas to edit for the interviewees, but the stories got jammed up with the editors again. I had mentioned people in the stories that had made an impact, this time in a negative way. They were non-celebs, however, and I had used only first names, or sometimes simply a relationship (ex-husband, boyfriend, father, etc.), but that didn’t matter.
Rick explained. If any of the people I’d written tangentially about read the story, they (or a relative in the case of one who’d died), might be offended and come after the website. Okaaay. These were a little more difficult to write around and still use the original “voice” of the women, but I finally did it to their and Rick’s satisfaction.

The testimony I’m working on now is a powerful story. The life of this young woman has changed dramatically, but she went through “the valley of the shadow of death,” literally. Several times, my tears joined hers as I listened to her hesitantly tell about it. How was I ever going to adequately write this, I wondered.

It took me a very long time, and then it came in at a thousand words over the website limit.

This time I sent it to Rick first, asking for advice on where to cut it. He came back immediately with what I could NOT write about, regardless of how compelling or effective. Areas of illegal or even criminal activities on the part of anyone mentioned in the story were strictly out. It could hurt my interviewee in the long run, and the words and actions I’d revealed about people, might result in a lawsuit against the website if they were ever to read her testimony. Yikes!
I should have known that, but I’d harked back to my investigative newspaper journalism days, and had forgotten. I’d zeroed in on revealing the details of the story and had forgotten the purpose of the website. (Following a magazine or website’s guidelines is one of the first rules of article writers!)
So I cut and rewrote it – thinking I must be softening the story. Then following Rick’s further advice, I cut it more and rewrote it again.  And, what do you know! The story of how her belief in Jesus Christ dramatically changed her life emerged crystal clear. It was the jewel in the muck.

By considering “the consequences” and being wise about not telling sordid and unnecessary “truth,” I’d done a better job. The young woman’s story was told, God was honored, and I learned a valuable lesson. I will certainly always tell the truth when ghost writing a person’s testimony, but I will also decide and eliminate what is superfluous to that truth and which might bring needless and “nasty” consequences. Good advice for all non-fiction writing, I think, but especially in writing for ministry.