Another Look At Descriptions

by Miko Johnston

In my contributions to this blog, I’ve written about descriptions several times. Describing, or as Jackie likes to say, illustrating in our writing has always presented a challenge to me. Part of it is how much? and is this necessary? There’s also how well…? – am I using fresh word pairings and metaphors that impress, not impede? Will readers not only ‘see’ it, but believe it?

All writing needs description to bring the story to life, but contemporary fiction usually depends on what we see around us. Science fiction, fantasy and, to a lesser extent, alt-reality requires more description as the reader can’t assume anything in a newly created world. So does the procedures of a character with an unusual or highly technical occupation, or day to day life in historical fiction to avoid anachronisms.

Writing historical fiction, as I do, requires a great deal of research, not only of history but images that represent the time. Clothing, hairstyles, machinery and tools, art and architecture infuse the story with the flavor of authenticity. In managing the word count, one picture can truly be worth a thousand words – if you find the right words.

I faced an insurmountable challenge in my latest novel. I wanted a character to wear a dress I’d seen illustrated in a period catalogue, a flamboyant style from the early 1920s. Today I’d describe it as having a side hooped (pannier) skirt with rolls of fabric resembling vertical soda can stackers hanging from each hip. However, that would not be time-appropriate for the era I write in and I couldn’t come up with a better way to depict the dress. It forced me to change her garment into something equally ridiculous but more describable, something Little Bo Peep might have worn.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve had trouble describing something in a way that a reader could visualize it. I envy writers who have that knack. I recently read a piece by Eric Asimov, who writes the Wine column for the New York Times, describing the ideal corkscrew, sometimes referred to as a waiter’s friend. He writes:

“It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork, a double-hinged fulcrum for resistance and a small, folding blade for cutting the foil that protects the cork.”

Brilliantly descriptive and clear. You can not only see it, but see how it’s used.

Another challenge is trying to describe a situation that many have gone through; for example, pregnancy and labor. If you’ve given birth, you would probably rely on your personal recollections. If not, you’d research what others have endured, like I did. Either way, some readers will tell you that’s not what they experienced. In my first literary pregnancy, I was so concerned about the birth that I left that scene ‘off the page’; my character leaves town a month before her due date and returns with babe in arms.

Now several of my characters have gone through pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve gotten more controversial feedback on that subject than any other, and always from mothers. Certain suggestions, such as those little moments you could never envision unless you were ‘there’, helped. Other comments were less beneficial, for although there is much commonality in the experience, little of it is universal. “That’s not how it was for me,” they’d say, and I’d tell them “Okay, but that’s how it was for my character.”

*          *          *

As I’ve recently finished my fourth novel in a series, I’ve reviewed the manuscript multiple times and also reread sections of the earlier books. In doing so I learned something about my method of describing. The more important an element is, the more I’ll usually describe it. For instance, in my second book, my character meets a family that will play a prominent role in the rest of the series. It’s my young protagonist’s first impression of them, so I devote at least a full paragraph to the description of each person, I’ve augmented the descriptions as time passed to show how they’ve changed with age. Minor characters, such as the housekeeper, merit a phrase, enough to picture the woman when she returns later in the story. Thanks to Gayle’s tutelage, I’ve learned a title – waiter, shopkeeper – often suffices for ‘walk-on’ characters, though I might include a glimpse to set the scene, such as the wizened mother-in-law of a black marketeer, opulent earrings hanging from her lobes like chandeliers.

The character’s perspective also plays a role. My heroine, Lala, is introduced as a child, “almost eight”, who grew up poor. Her thoughts and observations had to be filtered by her age and experience, which is why it took me weeks to come up with a way for her to ‘describe’ a terrazzo floor (…like flat pebbles floating in a sea of cream). As she matured, so did her perceptions and understanding of human nature. Whatever captures her interest, or she feels passionate about, will inspire a more detailed description.

I approach themes in the same way. In my most recent novel, I chose to represent the political and social turmoil of post-WWI Europe with an image I found in my research. Lala, now married with child, observes it while stuck in traffic:

She perused the art work, most of it propaganda celebrating the recent wave of Communist Party member assassinations in Germany. One placard illustrated a macabre street scene in Hungary, judging by the uniforms worn by a line of soldiers hanging from gallows. Wives and children wept at the dead men’s feet while, standing in the middle of the road, a Bolshevik in uniform observed the carnage with a haughty air of satisfaction. The caption read, Erzet Harcoltunk? – ‘This is what we fought for?’…The artist had placed the smug-looking Bolshevik in the foreground, hands on hips, an unkempt uniform wrapped around his fat middle. Skinny legs stuffed into unpolished boots. Thin arms as well, implying physical weakness…Then she noticed the slight alteration of the Bolshevik’s cap, a subtle nod to a trait he shared with many of the political assassination victims.

The gold star affixed above the brim did not have five points, but six.

Rather than rely on the headlines of the day, I chose to let the reader “see” what she’s describing and understand the meaning behind the images.

This method works for me. What techniques do you rely on to get the right balance of description and imagery in your writing?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth book in her series. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

A Revelation and a Lesson in Reality

Moving from California to Connecticut, coast-to-coast, during the first months of the COVID pandemic resulted in flying out of an airport almost devoid of staff and passengers. I sailed through Security with only two other people in line. In fact, the airport was a ghost town, as was LaGuardia when I reached New York. No coffee shops or stores were open, but, warned ahead of time, I’d brought my own travel cup and, of course, my kindle loaded with eBooks.

It had been 23 years since I had lived in CT and discovered that I knew not a soul any longer except for my son and daughter. I searched the Obituaries pages for news of long-lost friends and called up a newspaper I used to work for but no one had heard of my fellow reporters from so long ago.

Needing to get back into the writing community I joined the New York chapters of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and renewed my Authors Guild membership, but there were no actual meetings scheduled except for Zoom. Like most writers I thrive on in-person contact where we have an opportunity to pick up characteristics of other humans, locales, and other, often small, details we put to use in our books.

I cast around for any group related to writing that met in person and this month, lo and behold, I was told of a women’s book club that was actually meeting at a coffee shop. There was also a memoir group at someone’s home. I’d been to several book clubs in California as their speaker when one of my books was the subject of discussion but what would it be like sitting on the other side of the table? I’d been treated with great respect, gentleness, and politeness each time with questions that were easy to answer and expected the same for this author and his work.

Instead, it was a revelation and a lesson in reality.

The book under discussion was a pretty hefty novel by a renowned author.  I was struck the most by everyone’s intensity, enthusiasm, and deep knowledge of each character and their supposed intent; the proposed meaning of every scene, and talk about the author’s hidden message on almost every page even if there were none. It was fascinating to hear that three members said they were in disagreement with the author because one character didn’t really mean what he said and other members backed her up. Another lady said a character should not have done what she did and offered an alternative to what the author wrote, and yet another lady said two of the characters should never have had the argument they did if only they had done so-and-so.

Wow!

Suggesting rewriting parts of an important classic to suit varying ideas about where the plot and its people should have gone gave me an introspective that I knew was impossible to achieve. There are a couple of classics wherein the author addresses the reader as “dear reader,” in his/her books but I doubt it is a plea for understanding the book’s intent. Authors cannot please everyone, and occasionally cannot please themselves when they re-read a book they wrote years earlier, perhaps, and see one or two parts they’d like to edit.

I enjoyed the back and forth between the ladies who were diplomatic in their critiques despite opposing opinions. One tended to hog the limelight by going on and on until the group leader gently cut her off. I was surprised that 4 or 5 of the 14 in the group remained mute the entire time but the others made up for their silence with well-articulated points of view, albeit wishing the author had written some scenes a bit differently.

As the newcomer I mostly listened and didn’t reveal I was an author.  Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered but I was there to discuss someone else’s work.  Only at the end did I disagree with the general conclusion that the main character had redeemed herself by her ringing endorsement of a couple in love rather than try to split them apart as she had earlier in a book-long fit of jealousy. One member asked if the author wished readers to come to like his previously nasty main character at the end by having her do a complete turn-about of herself.

My take was that she was self-serving by pretending to have changed in order to receive everyone’s good wishes instead of their usual disparaging remarks when she dissed them ad nauseum. She was congratulated and basked in their comments, but to me she was still living up to her me-me-me attitude. My statement was then discussed and agreed to by a slim majority of members, while others said they hadn’t thought of it that way but, yes, it made sense.

Perhaps had the author been at this meeting he would have been flabbergasted at the suggestions for changes, as sensible as they were, and probably even a little daunted at the thought but, all in all, I liked the fact that these book clubbers genuinely loved books and discussing them in depth was important to their lives. I am glad I joined and plan to attend every month.

Should I take a lesson from the discussion? Yes, very much so except I am still writing what I want to write. If a reader finds problems in a book that is fictional the author can be excused. What have been your book club experiences?

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Jill Amadio is a ghostwriter and cozy mystery writer. This is her new novel.

A leggy wildflower of a girl, teenage Sofia runs away from rural Oregon to big city Portland where she meets and marries a charismatic Saudi Arabian later known as 9/11 hijacker #13. While a slumbering America embraces feng sui and pizza she is present when terrorist sleeper cells are organized in her home, maps of landmark buildings, airports, and bridges are studied, and teams of recruits take flying lessons.

IN TERROR’S DEADLY CLASP, a novel, is based on her true story, providing a rare, chilling glimpse under the radar of the terrorists’ daily lives as they enjoy strip clubs, fast food, and freedom from their religious rules. After warning the FBI of the Arabs’ photo sessions, driving several men into America illegally from Mexico, and other suspicious activities, she goes undercover for U.S. intelligence agencies with deadly consequences.

The Secret Books of Poison

by Alan Bradley

 

In my library are three slightly repellent books. One is the colour of poisoned custard, and the other two are a poisonous purple.

They look as if they’ve been through a lot. And they have.

These fat volumes, of about 500 pages each, were compiled in a time of disaster, and at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing or why. All I knew was that it needed to be done.

But first, a word of explanation. I am often asked, as are most writers, “Where did your main character come from? How did you go about creating him/her?” The simple answer is “I didn’t”, but the truth lies hidden in the thousand and more pages of these three uneasy books.

We had, at the time, a comfortable home on the edge of a forest – just like in the fairy tales. Until one night, lightning struck, and our forest was ablaze. Although we managed to get out safely with our pets, just ahead of the flames, more than 200 of our neighbours’ homes were reduced to ashes. When we were finally allowed to return, several weeks later, we found ourselves living in a blasted landscape: skeleton trees in a dead landscape of soot and ashes.

Time changed, and everything became different, including ourselves. What were we to do?

Sometime during those long hours and days and weeks that followed, I began compiling a compendium of poisons. The psychologists ought to have a field-day with that! Without knowing why, I had begun collecting and collating everything I could find on poisons and their history, all nicely filed alphabetically and indexed all the way from ‘A is for Arsenic’ to ‘Z is for Zarutin.’

The files grew from a folder, to many, and then to a book, then two, then three.

They contained detailed descriptions of the life and crimes of famous and not-so-famous poisoners, the history of specific poisoners from antiquity until just yesterday, the chemistry of poisons and their medical aspect. Ancient newspaper accounts told many a grim story, all so sadly the same: love gone wrong, ambition gone mad, and cleverness come a cropper.

There were heart-breaking tales of poor children who, in searching for something to eat, had – but enough! You get the idea.

Then, as the world around us restored itself, I put these books away, not knowing if I would ever look at them again. Whatever angel had caused me to compile this stuff had not bothered to leave an explanatory note. When the time came, I would know why.

Several years passed. Five, in fact. And there came a day when I decided that it was time to sit down and write that ‘Golden Age’ mystery novel I had been mulling since my younger days. It was a book that I much looked forward to, a tale that would draw on my years of experience in television broadcasting. Something fresh – something startling.

But it was not to be. I got no farther than the second chapter when, in a scene involving a visit to a crumbling country house in England, an eleven-year-old girl materialised suddenly on the page and would not, in spite of my every effort, be budged. She would not be written out and she would not be ignored. After a time, I realised that she had taken over my book completely. It was her book now, and my role was to sit down, shut up, and write what she told me to write.

And it came as no real surprise that her whole being revolved around a passion for poisons. Her knowledge of the subject was, you might say, voluminous.

Since then, she has more or less dictated ten novels, and has gathered readers around the globe in forty-some countries and forty-some languages. She has been on the New York Times bestseller list.

And that, dear reader, is the origin of Flavia de Luce, as best as I can manage to explain it.

And these three noxious volumes are the only proof I have that all of this is true.

See for yourself!

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My website is www.flaviadeluce.com  My facebook page is AlanBradleyauthor. My gmail is flaviadeluce@gmail.com
 
Happy to hear from readers.
 
Photo by Jeff Bassett
 
I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario, and being always fascinated by the magic of light and colored glass, naturally went into television broadcasting, both private and public. After twenty-five years as Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, I took early retirement to write a mystery that never got written. I did manage to write other things, though.
 
Now that I’m retired from retirement, having lived for a while in Malta, my wife and I now live in the Isle of Man, in the shadow of an old castle, where we keep an eye on the sea at our door, which was once frequented by Saint Patrick and the Vikings.
 
 
 
Alan Bradley has written TEN Flavia deLuce books, plus a short story, The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse. His newest novel is The Golden Tresses of the Dead. All the books are available in audiobook form (which I love). 
He also wrote a wonderful ebook memoir, The Shoebox Bible. 
 
          
 
 
 

 

BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

***************

Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

*          *          *

Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Mystery People

By Jill Amadio

As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.

As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour,  colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”.  Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.

My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.

It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.

Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter.  I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.

Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.

What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.

While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”.  I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary.  As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.

While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police,  Constable.  I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.

When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.

Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!

Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”

I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.

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Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.”  The books are set in Newport, California.    http://www.jillamadio.com

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio 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)

 

 

My Fishy Introduction to Malice Domestic

by Jill Amadio

 

Ever feel like a fish out of water? As an ex-pat in California where residents are famous for being “the people from somewhere else,’ I humbly claim myself as a prime example. Because I am a Brit from Cornwall I was invited to be a “Fish-Out-of-Water” panelist at the three-day Malice Domestic Writers Conference held in Bethesda, MD just outside Washington, D.C.

Mary HigginsThe event is the largest annual gathering in America for writers and fans of traditional mysteries in the genre of Agatha Christie, which places them in a genre called ‘cozy.” It appears that publishers here prefer authors to be strictly categorized into the type of book they write: romantic suspense, noir, thriller, psychological suspense, hard-boiled, legal thriller, historical, private investigator, cozy, police procedural, and sub-genres such as a sci-fi and the newest, cyber-crime mysteries.

Some crime writers look down their noses at cozy writers. We are often considered to be the low man on the totem pole. No matter. We bask in the knowledge that it attracts hundreds of attendees from all over the country.  It was my first foray into this cozy conference although I am a veteran of Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Ladies of Intrigue, Surrey International in Canada, and other conferences for cozy writers and readers.

DiggingDeadCover-375x600The second book in my series, “Digging Up the Dead: A Tosca Trevant Mystery” was published just in time for this premier annual event. My main character hails from Cornwall and comes to live in Newport Beach, like me, so the “Fish Out of Water” panel was perfect for us both.  It was fun to explain to the audience that Tosca Trevant, a London gossip columnist (me too!) had rattled the royals by discovering yet another scandal at Buckingham Palace. This led her editor to re-assign her temporarily to America. Cussing mildly in the Cornish language, and coping with a culture that sees no need for a teashop on every corner, the meddlesome, outspoken and humorous Tosca turns amateur sleuth when she stumbles upon human remains in a neighbor’s garden, in the best Miss Marple tradition although Tosca is a younger version.

I was the only ex-pat author among us five panelists at Malice, whose main characters were also considered outsiders rather than police detectives or private investigators. I was bombarded with questions from the packed audience about how I came to live in the United States (“my ex-husband insisted and who needs all that rain back home?”), why I write traditional mysteries (“because Agatha Christie is my muse”) and how I manage to conjure up clues, settings, and plots. My favorite question is usually how I decide who the murderer will be. I answer honestly that I don’t always know until I’m into the story.

In my new book I created a character whom I intended to be the killer but the more I wrote about that person the more I came to like them so I designated someone else to be the villain instead. Another time during the writing of chapter 16 something incredible happened to me. I was writing dialogue wherein a character denies knowing something. GuardianShe was instantly contradicted by a voice behind my chair shouting out, “Yes! You did know!” The voice was male and sounded exactly the way I had described his gravelly voice in a previous chapter. I swung around, dumbfounded. Of course, there was no one there and no one else was in the house. Some writers say their characters often take over their role in a book but this was different. Sam spoke a line of dialogue that added another dimension to the plot. It worked well, surprisingly, giving an extra twist to the story. I didn’t hear from him again nor from anyone else I created so I guess he and the others were satisfied with how the plot was progressing.

One important take-away I have learned from being a panelist and this was particularly true at Malice: make ‘em laugh. I was fortunate enough to be able to describe some of Tosca’s amusing clashes with American culture, a few of which I experienced myself when I arrived in the U.S. Her reactions, though, are a bit more defined and she has no problem expressing herself although most of the time she is proven to have grabbed the wrong end of the stick or has misinterpreted the meaning, which makes for a few giggles.

So the lesson is that the more listeners you can make laugh, the more likely they are to buy your books. The key is for your readers to like you as a person, which can encourage them to believe they’ll like your writing. I was lucky enough to have sold out of my books at that first conference, as did other authors. I’m told that cozy readers make up the bulk of the crime-reading market so I plan to attend Malice Domestic forever. Or as long as I write mysteries.

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JillAmadioHead

Jill Amadio’s mysteries are available in paperback and kindle on amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Nook. She is also the ghostwriter of 16 memoirs and biographies, and co-author of the Rudy Vallee life story, “My Vagabond Lover.”

 

 

 

 

 

This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Time-Tripping to 1902: The Mary MacDougall Mysteries

By Richard Audry

When I first saw the movie adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, I immediately fell in love with the passionate, rebellious Lucy Honeychurch character.  At that same time, my wife and I had become big fans of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock Holmes series, with Jeremy Brett playing the coldly logical, unemotional detective. I had been toying with the idea of writing a mystery for a while, and I had an inspiration: What would you get if you mashed up Lucy Honeychurch with Sherlock Holmes? And that is the origin story of Mary MacDougall.

My Mary MacDougall series takes place in the Upper Midwest c. 1900 and stars the eponymous 18-year-old heiress, whose unlikely and socially inappropriate dream is to become a consulting detective. I wrote the first book a number of years ago, in period style. And that’s when I stumbled across my first principle of historical mystery writing:

Begin with primary historical source material, if it’s available.

For that original Mary MacDougall novel, I spent weeks in a university library hunched over a microfilm machine, reading newspapers from that period. I immersed myself in the real news and life of the early 1900s. I learned what people were thinking back then, how they were behaving, what the news of the day was at a granular level. Occasionally, serendipity struck, such as the time I stumbled across a full-page feature story titled “Women As Detectives.” The thousands of advertisements were another valuable window on that era.

I also obtained two sources from the period that have proven to be vital. One, which I found in the back recesses of a used bookstore, is a world almanac from 1904, packed with general information—nearly a thousand tissuey pages. Another is my reproduction copy of the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog, now close to falling to pieces.

(Wishbook Web.com is a great source for writers who need details about clothing and products from the mid-20th century and later. It has every Sears catalog of that era. Even if you don’t need it for research, it can also be nostalgic trip back in time. Project Gutenberg is a great place to find thousands of free public domain books from the 19th and early 20th century, including travelogs and non-fiction.)

Doing research for a historical mytery can actually be quite enjoyable, especially if you’re a history buff. We booked a trip to Michigan’s Mackinac Island a couple years ago, to flesh out scenes for Mary’s vacation there in A Daughter’s Doubt (Book 3 in the series). The island was a popular tourist destination at the turn of the 20th century, with notables such as Mark Twain booked in for lectures and presentations.

More difficult than doing the research, I think, is deciding what to use. How much is too much? Some readers love rich immersion in historical detail. This seems especially true if you’re writing straight historical fiction. But I think with the historical mystery genre, readers’ expectations are a bit different. When I decide what to include, I have one clear guideline:

The research has to serve my characters and their stories, not the other way around.

In other words, I don’t want to be showing off my research and bogging down the plot. I’ve seen it happen too often. By oversharing research, you run the risk of boring readers and losing them. But determining what to include and what to exclude isn’t easy. For my mysteries, I find that watercolor brush strokes of history work better than photographic specificity. Still, on my second or third reads through the manuscripts, I’ll end up cutting descriptive sections that I know are slowing down the tempo of the narrative.

When I finished my first Mary MacDougall, I received compliments about its authentic voice but the book failed to sell—to agents, publishers, or readers. Discouraged, I set it aside and concentrated on a couple of new contemporary mysteries and an alternative history sci-fi ghost trilogy. A few years back, I revisited that first Mary MacDougall story. I realized my main character was not very likable—more Sherlock Holmes than Lucy Honeychurch.

I decided to give her a personality makeover. And to loosen the restraints that would have actually been put on a young, wealthy woman back in 1901. Which leads me to my next rule of thumb:

I am willing to fudge some historical outlooks and prejudices for the sake of a good story.

That meant, for example, that Mary’s father, a wealthy businessman, needed to be a bit more accepting than might be expected when his headstrong daughter seeks a career in detecting. True, he disapproves and complains and threatens a lot. But he allows Mary to set up shop with her cousin Jeanette, as secretary/chaperone—trusting that the daily grind of business will wear her down. Then, he hopes, she’ll see the sense in marrying some solid man of business. He even grudgingly tolerates Mary’s infatuation with an unsuitable fellow who happens to be an artist—trusting she’ll grow out of it.

And what about Mary’s corset? Where is the lady’s maid to help her put it on? My heiress/sleuth is no hoity-toity duke’s daughter or snooty Manhattan debutante. She’s a practical Midwestern girl who can take care of herself. And she’s also something else that I think is essential in a historical mystery.

Mary is the modern reader’s agent in a tale from the past. Her point of view is closer to ours than to that of a real heiress of 1902.

I want to be able to identify with any protagonist I write, and I want the reader to feel the same. That requires Mary to be kind of a version of you or me. If you or I were in her shoes, we might attempt the same things, which would be in tune with modern sensibilities.

For instance, in the new book, Mary takes up the cause of a street urchin whose most prized possession, a valuable pocket watch, has been stolen. The matter seems trivial, on its face. But her concern is an expression of her awakening notion that homeless children are deserving of justice just as much as anyone. In fact, it’s this particular epiphany that gets Mary in the gravest peril of her career. I believe it’s that sort of thing that makes her resonate with readers in 2020. She is our champion.

Writing about the bawdy, brilliant historical comedy The Favourite, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put his finger right on it: “…all historical reconstruction is a game, and to pretend otherwise—to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own—is merest folly, so why not relish the sport?”

I certainly have relished putting Mary through her paces in her first four adventures. And I have many more plots in mind than time to write them. I’d love to bring her out to the Carmel/Monterey artist colony to try and talk some sense into Edmond Roy, the man she loves who refuses to follow her advice and stay in Duluth. And then there’s the possibility she may go spying in Europe for the State Department—imagine how much fun that story would be to research. There could even be some cloak and dagger during the Atlantic crossing. (A tip of the hat to Jackie for that idea.)

 

RichardAudry (1)In closing, I have a request for writers in this group.

I’m starting work on a non-mystery novel about two young nurses who travel from the Midwest to work in California right after WWII. I’m looking for sources that would give me a flavor of what life in Santa Barbara was like in that period. Any suggestions for books (fiction or nonfiction), articles, websites, or libraries would be much appreciated. You can contact me at drmar120@netscape.net.

 

Here are the Mary MacDougall Mysteries in order, in their Kindle editions. The first three titles are currently available from other booksellers such as Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. A Fatal Fondness will be available in Epub versions later in February.

A Pretty Plot  A Pretty Little Plot

Stolen Star  The Stolen Star

DaughtersDoubt  A Daughter’s Doubt

A FATAL FONDNESS   A Fatal Fondness

Also, please consider visiting my website  and liking my Facebook author page.

 

This article was posted for Richard Audry by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

For a preview of Richard Audry’s A Fatal Fondness, please check out my FIVE STAR REVIEW on my:  Here’s How It Happened – A Fatal Fondness

 

Keeping It Real: Developing Characters Throughout a Series

by Miko Johnston

I became an author when I finished the first in my series of fiction novels – my first book, period. Interestingly, Lala, the character I inaugurated thirty years ago, recently turned thirty herself. Is that a coincidence?

Maybe not.

Petal InTheWindMy writing has matured over those thirty years, as has my heroine. Granted, when introduced in my first book, she was “almost eight”, so her voice and thoughts had to reflect her age. However, the book was meant for adults, therefore it had to present the story at a more mature level. Much of the storyline and the tension springs from a child who’s unable to fully understand her situation and an adult audience who clearly can.

As the story develops, and Lala ages, she had grown up in the eyes of my readers as well as my own. I sometimes feel like thirty years ago I gave birth to this young girl, though I’m thrilled not to have actually given birth to an eight-year-old! Still, having lived with these characters for almost half my life and four books, they’ve become very familiar, and I’ve grown close to them. I sense a greater intimacy between the characters with each novel, in part because of my growing familiarity with them.

I feel the same way about characters in the series I still read. I’ve become invested in their lives, curious to see how they play out. It’s become an even more important aspect of pleasure in reading than the storyline. I’ve stuck with a few series with formulaic plots because of my attachment to the people who populate the stories.  I’ve also dropped a few series from my must-read list and always for the same reason – stagnant characters.

I asked several writers of serialized fiction about how their relationship with their characters – and their characters’ relationships with each other – has changed with each book, and each passing year.

51pZwz0PBbL GOTUMike McNeff introduced his hero Robin Marlette in GOTU (pronounced Got-U, it’s short for Guardians of the Universe). His action/adventure series features a covert ops team that has to balance work with home life. Mike’s currently writing the fourth book in the series. When I asked him how his characters have evolved over time, he decided to let Robin speak for himself:

“We were once cops who tried not to hurt anyone, including suspects. Now we kill just to survive and it has reached the point where killing has become a mere afterthought. I’ve killed sleeping men, men who didn’t know I was near them and men who were simply doing an assigned task at a particular moment. They were all involved in acts threatening innocent people, but I gave them no warning…no chance to surrender. I just killed them.” Robin’s eyes met the admiral’s. “My men and I have become dark and dangerous shadows moving through the night grappling with a squirming underworld. I’ve become unsure of just what and who the enemy really is…I just react to threats to the innocent people on this earth.”

I’ll add that the series has grown darker, but as Mike’s characters have developed into a close-knit team, they’re more comfortable teasing each other, and their humorous banter provides comic relief that lightens up the action.

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41SMl8rQs0L IndelibleWhat began for Heather Ames as a stand-alone novel turned into a deftly blended mystery, suspense and romance series featuring Detective Brian Swift and socialite/club owner Kaylen Roberts (due in part to encouragement from some members of this blog). Ames says, “My characters have evolved from two people who didn’t even trust each other enough to share confidences into two people who have been trying to work through various challenges. They weren’t sure they could work things out by the end of Book one, but they both wanted to try.”

In each subsequent novel she balances the suspense between solving the mystery and navigating their evolving romance. Readers root for the couple, but Ames keeps us wondering as we follow their emotional roller coaster ride. “Being mismatched soulmates isn’t an easy gig. Brian’s profession is a huge stumbling block for Kaylen (while) Brian feels like a fish out of water in Kaylen’s world, and isn’t so sure he wants to try fitting in.”

The couple has progressed with each book. “Kaylen has evolved into a much stronger character than she was at the beginning of the series, while Brian has developed chinks in his armor that make him more vulnerable.”

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41SMgxyg59L Last ConfessionPat Kelley Brunjes traveled a similar route with her characters as I, opening her series with a story loosely based on her family history. In her first novel, The Last Confession,  her protagonist serves as a stand-in for Brunjes. “Maggie was me seeking to find the truth about my grandmother’s relationship to the Catholic Church.” Although based on her research, she fictionalized the story, which allowed her to take Maggie in a non-biographical – and more dangerous – direction. In the sequel she’s writing, her heroine gets entangled in a cold-case murder and human trafficking. “In the second novel, Maggie has evolved into her own person dealing with what fate has thrown her, and how her personal beliefs guide her decision to help others.” Having given herself the freedom to step away from semi-autobiography, Brunjes will have much flexibility in plotting future entries in the series.

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51sKIWU-ULL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ PaulineAvis Rector faces a unique challenge in writing her historical fiction series, based on the early life of her family on Whidbey Island. In her first book, Pauline, the heroine and her husband settle on the island during the Depression. “So much of the first Pauline was based on my memories of the stories I heard as a child from my father who loved to tell stories—usually real happenings, but many embellished.” However, in her sequel, the story moves into the 1940’s, a time Rector lived through. She’s having to reinterpret her childhood memories through an adult’s perspective. “Actually, I’m having a hard time writing how the adults felt about the time. Pauline has changed.”

Part of that involves Pauline’s maturing. Rector admits she struggles to find the right balance between the irrepressible gal readers meet in the first novel and the responsible parent she becomes after adopting two children. “It was difficult for her to become a mother. She’s no longer the fun-loving young wife (as in the first book), but a serious, not so much fun, mother. I’m sorry about this, and feel I should…try to soften her personality, to enjoy the experience of being a mother like she always wanted to be.”

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Most of us in WInRs have written, or are writing, series – I’m interested in hearing their take on this. I also know some of you reading this post write serialized fiction. What challenges have you faced moving your characters through the years, either in ‘book-time’ or real time? Have they evolved over the course of your series, and if so, how?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

M.M. Gornell: One Of Our Own!

by Jill Amadio

madelineI had the pleasure of getting to know one of our Writers in Residence bloggers, M.M. Gornell, more in depth last month and decided to write up my talk with her for the monthly column I write for a UK magazine called Mystery People.

I thought you might like to know what I discovered about Madeline so herewith is the story. The magazine included a photo of her and one of her book covers.

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U.S. Route 66

“The United States is such a whacking great country it encompasses every type of climate and terrain from deserts to glaciers, providing settings for crime writers in sand, mountains, seas, and snow.

Officially founded in 1776 and with archaeologists discovering tribes who lived here as long ago as seven millennia, America’s history of pioneers, gold miners, railway barons, and migrants continue to capture the imagination of writers. The push West from the East coast, where 100 or so Puritans from England disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620, has inspired books, movies, poetry, and songs, and created myths and legends.

How did these brave souls travel across the vast, undeveloped country?  One answer: Route 66.

route-66-2264400__340One of the most famous, nostalgic, fascinating and historic highways that wagon trains of homesteaders traveled, along with migrants seeking fortunes in gold mines, land, and new opportunities, U.S. Route 66 was originally a 2,500-mile dirt trail that ran from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. It was eventually smothered in asphalt and became known as the Mother Road, and the Main Street of America, passing through a total of seven states.

John Steinbeck memorialized Route 66 in his masterpiece, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in which he described sharecroppers’ gritty hardships and hopes. It is said that there was no symbol more loaded with meaning in Steinbeck’s novel than Route 66.

Many over the years have jumped on the bandwagon (forgive the pun) from the Rolling Stones, the Shakers, and other British bands who wrote hits about Route 66. Currently the BBC is preparing to launch another “The Hairy Bikers” show starring the popular cooks who will be riding their motorbikes along the renowned U.S. highway; no doubt pausing at the famed old diners along the way.

Crime writer M.M. Gornell

One author who actually lives smack on Route 66 in a small community called Newberry Springs in the western Mojave Desert is crime writer M.M. Gornell, Madeline to her friends. A typical oasis in the desert, the small town’s surrounding area boasts man-made lakes, farms, and ranches, and is about 100 miles south of Death Valley.

perfectAlthough her former residences have included other towns and the Sierra Nevada with its rich palette of Red Rock Canyon (the setting for her thriller, DEATH OF A PERFECT MAN), Madeline’s move to Newberry Springs inspired her to set the majority of her eight crime novels, including two series, along the famed highway. “For me, setting definitely comes first, then the story,” she said.

“Through some serendipitous miracle, probably springing from tiredness, the cost, and most importantly the feel of the place, we ended up in Newberry Springs. I come from Chicago, where Route 66 starts, and now I live at the end of it in California. I’m nowhere near to being an expert on the Road, not like real ‘roadies,’ and I’ve never driven the entire route, but in my mind, heart, and emotions the act of crossing this vast country has taken hold of my mind as a symbol for the hardiness and determination of the people who took it on, especially in those early days.”

As it proved for Steinbeck, Madeline said the name itself – Route 66 – is a pretty awesome beacon, leading the way in her writing adventures. “It is a constant writing inspiration.”

The multi-award-winning author’s first published work, including an Honorary Mention at the London Book Festival, was a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Magazine, which led to her debut crime novel, UNCLE SI’S SECRET. “It’s set in the majestic Cascade Mountain range where the seas of evergreen forests and the seemingly boundless waterways all combined to send my creative juices continually a-whirring”.

California and Route 66 beckoned…

liesBut California and Route 66 beckoned in the 1990s, due to mental pictures and expectations she had of the Mother Road twenty years earlier. It was not as easy as she had imagined, but new settings presented themselves and the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains provided magnificent, magical scenery, inspiring her “Raven” mystery series, then LIES OF CONVENIENCE, and more recently her “Rhodes” mystery series.

dead.route-66-1238115__340Although the romance of the route was a fixed American landmark, it was soon bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System which either paralleled it, resurfaced portions, or went elsewhere, leaving Route 66 abandoned and lined with ghost gas stations and tiny deserted communities. Eventually, it was officially designated as “ceasing to exist.” But you can’t keep an icon like the Mother Road down. It was rediscovered by musicians, hippies, artists, movie makers, and writers.

Madeline is an avid fan of British novelists P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Marion Chesney, and others of the Golden Age.  She is published by Aberdeen Bay which describes her books as literary mysteries. “My intent is usually to write a murder mystery but they’ve all somehow gotten out of hand and ended up more what I call ‘character studies’.

Why ravens?

r.ravensAsked if any of her life experiences have crept into her stories, and what exactly was her attractions to ravens, Madeline responds with a smile. Those two things fit together in perfect harmony.

c.ravens“Ravens are indeed a prime example of life experiences creeping into my story-lines, even into the titles, RETICENCE OF RAVENS  and COUNSEL OF RAVENS. 

The ravens love our backyard, most likely because of the bird seed we set out. They seem to be intelligent and even fanciful. For reasons I can’t articulate, ravens seem rather mystical and mysterious. My writing mind went on from there.

“None of my stories carry “messages” but occasionally it can happen, especially after I select a title, and especially with the Rhodes series. I regard the Mojave and Route 66 as a sanctuary where no-longer-needed pasts are blown away in the dust.”

Like many authors, Madeline chafes at having to spend time promoting and publicizing her mysteries. But she enjoys talking to people in person where she can present them with bookmarks or even a few small samples of the stoneware pottery she creates when not writing.  She attends a few writers conferences and loves England but her favorite celebration is the annual Newberry Springs Pistachio Festival on Route 66. It attracts many Europeans, as well as locals, who are “doing the Route” and exploring its ramshackle old cafes, rental cabins, and trading posts.

It is a sure bet author M.M. Gornell will never run out of inspiration for her mysteries thanks to her choosing to live along this fixture of historic and popular culture.

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M.M. GORNELL

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. Visit her Her Amazon Page

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

 

 

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