A Debut Mystery and Using Cornish Cuss Words!

by Jill Amadio

Mystery writers are often asked how they decided to choose not only the genre but the plot itself. My revelation for my debut novel came about when I moved to the United States. I’d been a reporter and figured on continuing in that profession forever. I loved it. However, life has a way of setting one down a different path than planned.

Balboa Island isn’t too shabby a place to live if you are banished to the colonies as I was. As a result of my divorce conditions I agreed to live in America with our three children.  A job on a magazine brought me to Balboa Island that is part of Newport Beach on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and the ritziest coastal town in Orange County, California. A virtual village, quaint and stunningly beautiful, Balboa is a place where nothing untoward ever, ever happens. Many of the beach “cottages” are stylish mansions with yachts bobbing at private docks and everyone goes to bed at 10 p.m.

In order not to confuse readers or tourists, I moved a few streets around for the plot and changed the name of the island to a fictional one in my book, “Digging Too Deep” naming it Isabel Island. When I lived there crime was non-existent except for an occasional purloined bicycle.  In short, the perfect setting for a murder or two.

After ghostwriting a crime novel for a Beverly Hills financier who never read books but wanted his name on one I decided mysteries were for me. I’d created a series character for him hoping we’d continue, and I was paid, to boot. But he declined after a lengthy book tour including a cruise while signing my book. Thus I plunged into writing my own first mystery.

A terrorist plot seemed the most shocking event to wake up the islanders but after meeting many authors who were writing violent, brutal thrillers I changed my mind.  In my bones are the books of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell. M.C. Beaton and P.D. James whose gentler murders fit more into the solve-the- puzzle, cat-and-mouse games I prefer rather than the graphic police procedurals and private detective plots so popular in the U.S.

Like most authors I bring a few personal experiences to my work and I wanted to establish a series character so my amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, is from Cornwall, UK. I’d dumped her onto Isabel Island where she grumbles about the lack of rain.

I asked poet and professor Pol Hodge in Redruth, Cornwall who teaches Cornish, for a supply of Cornish cuss words for my main character. He sent two pages of unbelievably descriptive and naughty ones – just as well my modified translations aren’t too precise — and I got to work on plot and setting.

I joined Sisters in Crime and its offshoot called Guppies, the Great Unpublished.  I also joined Mystery Writers of America, another national organization. Both offer excellent workshops and speakers but as we all know it’s the bum-on-the-chair that puts the words on the page.

After the book was polished I paid a professional editor to give it a look. He said I’d broken most of the Rules of Writing a Mystery; I had not followed The Formula publishers insisted upon; I was too free-wheeling with my character’s humor, and I should start all over again. Fat chance.

Next, there was the dreaded Perfect Query to be created.  Queries to agents must be specific, beautifully shaped, and, again, adhere to their golden rules as posted on their web sites. This time I paid great attention, followed the submission guidelines, reluctantly whittled my prose down to the required three paragraphs, and made up a list of unsuspecting agents.

There must be five thousand of them in America. The list was so lengthy I went to sleep reading it. I finally got it down to 60 agents after spending weeks checking each of their websites, a time-consuming exercise but no way around it at that time although today one can define the search.  I queried six simultaneously. I’d already talked to two agents – at $50 a pop – at writers’ conferences which were so frequent one’s bank balance is constantly depleted.

No takers. I queried 45 before giving up. Many sent me form letters of rejection, two asked for chapters before telling me No Thanks, and several never answered at all. It was depressing but my fellow writers urged me to keep submitting. So I next tried the small presses that can be approached directly without an agent. However, a few of those too have strict rules – no violence, no cruelty to animals, no swearing (Oh, dear), and no sex. That last bit was easy. I was British, after all.

After three editors rejected me the next on my list was Mainly Murder Press. Frankly, I fell in love with the name. It stated exactly and honestly what it published, and was on the East coast where all the big publishers were located, a fact that appealed to my snobbish instincts.  MMP only produced 12-15 books a year and its site stated “Absolutely No Submissions Until Late Spring.” Gosh. It was only January and I was impatient. Then I thought, well, it may be January on the East Coast but I was in Southern California and the daffies were already nodding their lovely yellow heads. I sent my query in, claiming that where I live it was already late spring.

The very next day MMP asked for chapters, then the full manuscript, and one week later I’d signed a 3-book contract. They thought my book was “wonderful”!  All of their editors and beta readers (a new term to me) loved “Digging Too Deep,” and I was in heaven.  I liked the book cover design although I requested the flag of Cornwall be added unobtrusively somewhere; the font was fine, and I waited anxiously for their digital ARC I was to send out to reviewers.

MMP did not promote nor send ARCs out early but it did distribute through Ingram, which was peachy, I thought. This publisher also did not give author advances but paid standard royalties and mailed catalogues to 650 independent U.S. bookstores, and to 4,000 public libraries.

Alas, the ARCs arrived barely a week before the paperback was published. Most reviewers refuse to accept such tardiness so I missed out on many reviews. However, I did my best. I thought that the bookstore on my island would order dozens of copies. Ha! I took the book in, asked them to stock it, and asked, May I please have a book signing here?

Again, I’d done everything wrong.  I was told, No, no, you have to create some buzz first! So I called a couple of local editors I knew. After they reviewed the book in their newspapers I took the clippings to the bookstore, thrust them into the owner’s hand, and said, Right. Here’s your buzz. I also sent the book to my UK hometown bookstore but never heard a word.

Nevertheless, I lined up more signings. One of the most enjoyable was at the annual Gathering of the California Cornish Cousins, a sly move I admit, but I sold a lot of books.  Thinking outside the box I also joined the Cornish-American Heritage Society which holds annual Gatherings along with a pasty-toss contest. Heaven forbid a pasty splits open and covers someone in meat and potatoes. My second mystery, “Digging Up the Dead,” earning a review from author Anne Perry.

So, while I am still ghostwriting biographies for a living having just finished a memoir and moved to Connecticut, Tosca’s third adventure is underway. After all, I have only used up nine Cornish cuss words.

Here’s a Novel Idea: Read a Book

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

The first person whoever wrote a book didn’t have libraries and bookstores full of previously penned tomes to read and enjoy and from which to get inspiration to perhaps write their own story. They had a story to tell and wrote it. We, centuries later, don’t have any excuses. We not only have books, but plays, movies, and television shows overflowing with plots, characters, scenery, and dialogue to stir our imagination. Not that writers can’t get ideas from life around them, but sometimes actually reading something from another writer lets us know it can be done. Even a lousy book can inspire a would-be writer to say: “Hey. I can do better than that.” And they do just that every day. But first we have to pick up a book.

You might have friends or family members who recommend a particular favorite. You can always go to a bookstore, if there are any left, and ask the bookseller to point out a few books in a particular genre. Long ago I worked at a Waldonbooks in the Glendale Galleria in California. People were always asking where a particular section was. Mysteries, romance, kid’s books, self-help, religion. At times I would point out a favorite of mine. The store would set out best-selling books on tables in the front of the store complete with advertising paraphernalia from the publisher. We didn’t have to do that with the romance novels. They sold like hotcakes and we would sell down to the wall by month’s end. Unfortunately, the book chain decided they didn’t want to carry lots of books in all kinds of genres, only the top selling books. Obviously they didn’t know avid readers liked to pick out a ton of books of their choosing, old titles, newer ones, or try something different. Oh well. Management must have been more interested in their bottom line than their customers. I love capitalism, but I also love books.

But what can a writer or would-be writer do to get inspiration? They need to ask the one person who will have the most influence on their work what they prefer reading? And who is this veritable font of information? Themselves. Writers usually write what they like to read. But they need to read other writers in their chosen genre to see what’s out there. This means the good, the bad, and the: “Oh, God! That’s the best thing I ever read.” kind of book.

Now I might have loved mystery books and mystery shows on TV, but the first book I wrote, though it took a while to get published, was a disaster novel, CAVERNS. Then I spent ten years writing a spy trilogy, but that wasn’t finding a publisher, either. Then my wonderful husband, Richard, said these immortal words: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a mystery novel?” Ah!

But what did I know about writing a mystery? My spy novels were based on History and a bit about my dad’s life in the Air Force. I added a ton of facts and made up the rest. But a mystery. I needed to know more about the genre since mystery writing wasn’t like a stand-alone novel where the writer defined the parameters. What did I do? First, I joined Sisters-in-Crime in Los Angeles and Mystery Writers of America so I could hear what other mystery writers did. Those two groups had many famous speakers at their meetings who talked about their writing. I read their books and the books of some of the members of both groups. I was learning.

Since a writer needs a place in which to set a story, a few came up. First, I got called to jury duty. Then Richard got called. He went to downtown Los Angeles the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were called. He came home and told me about the media circus down there with news cameras, helicopters, and microphones. My first Gin Caulfield book was called Media Justice about a high-profile case, the media’s influence, and Gin gets called to jury duty.

Next, Richard and I got free tickets to the Santa Anita Race Track. That became the opening of the second mystery in the Gin Caulfield Mystery Series, Hedge Bet. But then something else happened. I read another book.

This book was Eighteen by Jan Burke. Jan was a member of Sisters-in-Crime and I picked up her book of short stories. I loved the book and the idea of writing a short story. So I wrote one about an ex-mobster turned private detective. Then I wrote another one about the same guy. Then Sisters-in-Crime announced their latest anthology and asked for submissions. The theme of the anthology was landmarks in Los Angeles. I had to write another story, but it just so happened Richard invited me downtown for lunch one day and we went to the Bonaventure Hotel. That landmark ended up being the one I used in my story and the story got in the anthology. I thanked Jan for her inspiration.

Now I had three stories with the same character. The reviews for my story in the anthology were good, so I wanted to write more with him as the lead. So I wrote a couple more, but can you do a book of short stories all about the same guy?

Then I met another writer. I had read a lot of his books as a teenager and read even more after I met him. His name: Ray Bradbury. Jackie Houchin, a fellow Writers-in-Residence member and good friend, and I went to the opening of his play Fahrenheit 451 since Jackie reviewed plays for a local newspaper as well as an on-line paper. She got to bring a guest, me, but I thought I should review the play, too, since we got in free. On Opening Night Mr. Bradbury mentioned the time he had a batch of short stories he wanted to have published so he asked his publisher what he should do with them. The publisher told Ray to link the stories together which he did and The Martian Chronicles was published. So I had my answer from a writer who got the job done. I linked the Johnny Casino short stories together like a TV series.

I have three books in the Johnny Casino Casebook Series out there now thanks to inspiration from my husband, a book by Jan Burke, some advice from one of the best writers in history, Ray Bradbury, a chance to review Ray’s play because of a friend, and the fact I liked mysteries and wanted to write them.

Ninety present of the books I read are mysteries. I have learned a lot from each one: What to do and what not to do. And also what I can do better. But reading sure made a difference in my writing. If you are a writer: Read On!

MY GREEK SOJOURN….

 By ROSEMARY LORD

Rosie Selfie

I love to see the writing trends and what’s being read in different locales. So here I am doing my research in far away Greece. Well, someone has to do it!

You see, my older brother, Ted, is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and my sister Angela – an ex-dancer – is recovering from knee surgery. So, the best idea was to scoop everyone up and retreat to this sleepy village on the Greek coast, where we can do family healing and recouping – and where I can get a proper break from running the Woman’s Club of Hollywood.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, during those cold winter months.

And, as I sit on my balcony in the afternoon sun, while my siblings take a siesta, I concluded that this was indeed a very good idea!

Rosie in Greece 2

Behind me, the Taygata Mountains shield us from the rest of Greece. In front I can see the waves of the Ionian Sea rolling in, then rhythmically retreating. Olive trees and the occasional lemon tree fill in everywhere else, colored by a profusion of wildflowers wherever one looks. The birds – chaffinches, sparrows, house martins and the constantly-cooing doves – provide the background music. With the occasional bleat from a stray goat, or a distant dog bark.

Not many distractions for industrious writers here.

Rosie and sister 2 croppedAnd there are small writers’ groups in the little villages. Especially poetry writers. Mostly American, German and English ex-pats, who escaped the cold winters of their homelands to have a fresh start here.

An ideal place for writers – except that it’s very hard to get work done in such an idyllic surrounding. It was in the next village that Nicholas Kazantzakis wrote about the legendary local man, Zorba the Greek – the black-and-white film of the book had the iconic music as Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn danced on the local beach. Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence Durrell, Dorothy Parker and other writers would stay nearby at the home of British writer and war hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor. His home has recently been turned into a writers’ retreat, with programs through UCLA and the New York and the British Library. We watched it being restored over recent years and toured the light and airy library and living and writing rooms. A magical place.

But, back to today’s writing. In the small local Katerina supermarkets, I always head for the book stands to see what’s being read. Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Childs and James Patterson head the English-language shelves, with Danielle Steele and Mary Higgins Clarke perennial favorites for holiday reading. The same titles printed in Greek and in German occupy the next shelves. Victoria Hislop’s beautifully written and researched sagas based on Greek and Spanish civil wars are prevalent and, on a lighter note, Joanna Trollop, Lucida Riley, Leah Fleming and, still, Agatha Christie paperbacks remain popular purchases. At one of the nearby cafes there is a “bring one/take one” wall of books, where one can swap a book you’ve finished and read something different.

Rosie and Sister

Here I am with my sister Annie.

There’s a lot of sitting in the shade of the olive trees or under an umbrella on the beach and reading done here. Forget about TV in this part of the world – so there’s a lot of reading and writing going on. Until you nod off, that is, and awaken 40 minutes later, wondering where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing! I have done that many times since being back here! I’m catching up on lost sleep!

But getting away from one’s normal routine can be very productive. As Marcel Proust pointed out: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”

Looking at one’s life and work from afar brings new perspectives.

I have long been working on a book of the history of the Woman’s Club of Hollywood that has occupied my life for lo these many years. Here, I have been able to attack it with a different, fresh approach. I have also taken a different slant with two of my other half-finished novels that really need to be ‘out there.’ And I’ve been sketching a new mystery set in these parts.

I picked up an interesting idea from the prolific Lee Goldberg (who wrote the “Monk” television series, “Diagnosis Murder,” and recently Hallmark’s “Mystery 101”) on my recent trip to the Left Coast Crime Writers’ Conference, where we were fellow panelists.

Lee explained that script writing was much easier and quicker for him than all the novels he had written. Novels take him many months to write. Scripts could be done in a matter of weeks – often due to the pressing time allowed by the studios. So now he does a simple script of his new novel first. In the script, he said, he writes the step by step ‘what happened.’ No back-story and scant descriptions. Because, in a TV or film production, all the other departments fill this in.

The Casting Department bring in the actors whose personality, looks and ability provide the story’s characters. The Costume designers create the clothes for everyone, based on their view of the script they have read. The Production Designer designs the sets and, with the Art Department, select the locations and the back-drops. The Prop Master decides all the bits and pieces that fill the set, bringing it further to life. It’s a collaborative effort. They all meet up and discuss their ideas, along with the Cinematographer, Lighting and sound people. They each add their own talents and experience, orchestrated by the Director and the Producer. Writing the script, Lee says, is the simple part. He may not agree with or recognize the end-product on the screen, but, as long as the check didn’t bounce, he’s okay with this.

And so, he uses that basis for his novels now. He says it’s quicker than the old outline route. He writes the basic storyline as he would a script. With this, he can see if there is a part of the mystery or plot that doesn’t work, or something left unfinished. Once he knows he has the story worked out, he will go back in and fill in the character details, the background, the setting. This is the stage where he adds in any research he has undertaken and adds the touches of flavor and nuances. Whatever that particular novel needs to bring it to life.

And so, as the sun begins to sink behind the olive trees, I have re-assessed my various writing projects with fresh, ‘new’ eyes. Would fresh, ‘new eyes’ change your current writing?

                  Love from Greece,

                              Rosemary

Rosie in Greece 3

Writers on the Road

by Linda O. Johnston

Well, not literally on the road necessarily, but traveling. On vacation. 

Is there such a thing as a vacation for a writer? Yes… and no.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our minds are busy.  Never mind whether we’re sitting at a computer churning out whatever story we are working on. That might not happen as much while we are out of our usual environment.

But yes, we’re writing when we’re not writing. Our minds are at work, observing what’s around us, the environment, the people including possibly our families but also those who are there on vacation too, or locals, or those who are taking care of us at whatever hotels or resorts we might be visiting or cruises we’re on.

It’s all inspiration! No matter what we might be writing at the moment or planning to write in the near future, we’re always open to new ideas that we might head for in the future.

Yes, last time I was here I wrote about a life of strange inspirations. But what about inspirations that aren’t strange, but fun?

So why am I addressing this? Well, last week I was on a family trip at a resort in Cancun. Oh, yes, it was fun. I loved being with family, and the environment was amazing. Extremely windy when we were there, but the brilliant blue water beyond the white sand beach at the place we were staying was beautiful. A lot of generous service from the resort staff. Multi-level swimming pools. Vast buildings around areas where outside entertainment was provided. Even fireworks!

I had mixed emotions about some of it. We’d been to that resort before, and they have a couple of large pools containing dolphins that appear to be well treated considering where they are, but having such smart animals that are originally from vast sea environments contained like that… Well, I’ve researched dolphins. They’re wonderful beings. As smart as humans in their environment. Am I inspired to write about them? I’ve always been inspired to write about them, but definitely not in situations like that—unless they can find a way out and get revenge!

See! My mind was at work while I was relaxing and enjoying my vacation.

How about you? Does traveling inspire you to develop new ideas, new stories, different kinds of things?

By the way, this subject is so vital to me that I’m incorporating it into the three blogs I’m posting on the same day this month. I’m addressing it somewhat differently, but it’s definitely on my mind. Along with my writing.

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Photo by Leon Overweel on Unsplash

WHAT ARE WE MISSING?

by Rosemary Lord

Well, we wanted this year to be different, didn’t we? Or, did we yearn for The Good Old Days of yore: that is pre-Covid? The truth is somewhere in the middle…

For two years, we did as we were told. Because lives were at stake, and livelihoods, businesses, careers. We shut our lives down, following the Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines. We did the best we could.

But now, not a moment too soon, our world is supposed to be opening up again. How’s that working for you?  What are you looking forward to doing, as we get out and about, and happily smile, bare-faced, at each other again?

I don’t know about you – but, as a writer, I really missed all the Writers’ Conferences and workshops. It was a chance to get together with other creative folk from all over the world – writers, publishers, readers, agents – and swap ideas, hear news and get inspired and encouraged once more. Whether we attended in person, participated via Zoom or read about them online. They always made me feel part of a wonderful, chattering, writers’ world.

I loved reading about the conferences far, far away. Especially those sublime Writers’ Retreats in Tuscany, Greece or exotic Eastern islands. I mean, who could afford them? Even the fare to get there? Who had the time? But it was lovely to dream about the ‘one day’ when I had several best-selling novels under my belt and knew I could write the expenses off from my high taxes of my super-successful writing career.

I also learned a lot reading the descriptions of the workshops offered. Some were business oriented, about how the super-successful J. K. Rowlings and her compadres ran their writing careers or businesses. Or had someone else do it for them. Details of the foreign retreats that focused on creativity had descriptions to drool over: the leisurely, dreamy days gazing out on azure seas, after early-morning yoga, while tutors encouraged one to write something totally different from your usual style. To explore hidden corners of our creative brains. A morning of writing would be followed by exquisitely prepared meals of fresh, local produce served ‘en-plein-air’ – in the shade of exotic trees. To be followed by an afternoon saunter to the local farmers’ markets – or perhaps a wine tasting at the local vineyard. Then return to your room for more writing time. That is, if you could stay awake after the food and wine! Those Writers’ Retreats are VERY expensive. But one can dream…

In reality, most of us attend the more practical conferences packed with workshops on different styles and genres, on research, on editing our tomes, and how to wrap them up with an eye-catching pitch. There are always plenty of opportunities to attend agent-lead workshops, meet publishers and editors and hear lectures by our successful counterparts. I used to love listening to the late (and dearly missed) Sue Grafton. She always made us feel that if she had achieved success, then we could surely do the same. Charlaine Harris, Ann Perry, Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Michael Connelly – I could go on – but they all spoke at these numerous events, sharing advice and encouragement for their fellow writers.  

These conferences are held all over the country. The annual Bouchercon was to have been in New Orleans last year but was cancelled due to Covid. I was looking forward to that! This year it’s in Minneapolis in September. The last Left Coast Crime Writers Conference I attended was in Vancouver in 2019. The 2020 one in San Diego was cancelled. This next one is in Albuquerque in April. (I’m moderating a panel of screenwriters and guesting on a panel about Twentieth Century Mysteries.) Malice Domestic Conference will be in Bethesda late April. The International Thriller Writers Conference is June 4th in New York.

There are several more venues for writers to hone their craft and network, including the California Crime Writers, which has gone online due to Covid precautions. There’s something for every writer: romance writers, mystery writers, screen writers, short-story writers. Something for every genre, for beginners and experienced career writers, traditionally published, self-published and ‘pre-published.’ In that long conference weekend, we get to talk about writing, meet new writers and readers, new agents and publishers, learn the latest forensic discoveries, the new publishing trends – and often, we plot how to commit murders that we can get away with! For our literary characters that is, of course! Although that discussion might well happen at the Romance Writers Conference occasionally, too!

            Many conferences were in California, so I would drive to them. But other times I would fly to another state.  Apart from the fun adventure of travelling to these events, I’ve missed seeing my writer friends from all over the globe. We laugh a lot, catch up on each other’s lives, eat a lot – and the bars are always open. It’s a lovely escape – before we return home to our usually isolated writing life. There, we scribble in our endless notebooks, then tap away on our computers – until we have something completed that we can discuss at the next writers’ conference.

So, we’re back to normal – sort of.

Almost.

Yay!

What part of your writers’ life did you miss most these past couple of years?

Mystery People, Jessica Speart

by Jill Amadio

Few mystery writers pour their personal passion into their fiction to get their message across as successfully and as brilliantly as multi-book author Jessica Speart.  Published traditionally by such as Severn House, William Morrow, and others as one of the most addictive thriller series, the acclaimed American author’s plots are based on true, wildlife issues.

Elephants slaughtered for their tusks, sharks for their fins, rhinos for their horns, and other species for their rarity, many endangered, form the focus of Rachel Porter’s action-packed sleuthing. An agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS), the fictional character is a composite based on real agents who investigate smuggling, murders, and criminals who break the laws that cover illegal species trading.

Casting a worldwide net, Speart sets her mysteries in several American states, and peoples them with characters in Mexico, Russia and other countries where illegal hunting is at its most prevalent such as Hawaii for its rare reptiles and exotic birds in Florida, but what stands out the most is the remarkably meticulous and detailed research that Speart brings to her books. The reader learns a wealth of fascinating facts told in an often-humorous style while at the same time learning how poachers work, the tools needed to trap tortoises, and the clever ruses criminals use that include the rich and famous with their collecting obsessions.

Doing research is essential to my writing,” she said. ”The idea is not to just make things up [but] to provide facts in a compelling way.”

An investigative freelance journalist for several years after studying theater at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, and stints as an actress off-Broadway, in commercials, and soap operas, Speart switched from acting to writing.

“I needed to get away for a while and ended up going to Africa. It was there that I witnessed the poaching of elephants for their ivory and rhino for their horns. I came home determined to do something to try and help.”

Speart took a direct approach and began her magazine career writing stories about the USFWS special agents and their investigations. She became fascinated with their work. Many of her articles involved wildlife and drug-trafficking crimes and were published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

But the subject matter, she discovered, wasn’t high on the list of law enforcement agencies. An animal lover, she decided to take justice into her own hands by starting a crime series, knowing the popularity of mysteries and thrillers could give her topic a voice.

My first ten books are the fictional Rachel Porter mystery series,” she said, “which sprang from my magazine work. I became frustrated with the outcome of many wildlife cases. The illegal trade in endangered species is worth between $15-20 billion a year and yet the fines and punishment remain low.”

In the process Speart became an expert in demand at endangered species conferences, a keynote speaker at a wide range of distinguished forums including the American Museum of Natural History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, chapters of the Audubon Society, and others, and a frequent guest on television shows and documentaries..

“The transition from non-fiction journalism to fiction wasn’t difficult, given the reality of the issues,” she said, having covered cases from initial suspicious behavior to arrest and conviction.

The fast-paced Rachel Porter series begins with what could be considered fragments of the author’s own life. Titled GATOR AIDE, it takes place in the steamy bayous of Louisiana and the New Orleans French Quarter, featuring an alligator chained to a bathtub with a dead stripper nearby. The book’s characters include cops, killers, drag queens, and corrupt politicians.

Speart’s second book, TORTOISE SOUP, crosses the country to a new assignment in Nevada where endangered tortoises have disappeared, while book 3, BIRD BRAINED, sends the USFWS agent back to the southeast coast and Florida, where exotic cockatoos and parrots are smuggled out. The cast includes a wonderfully-rendered sleazy snake dealer, Cuban cigar smugglers, airboat cowboys, and Castro terrorists. The action never stops.

Primates inhabit book 4 and the locale is the Mexican border. Not too surprisingly because they exist in real life, there’s a game ranch stocked with rare antelopes, Indian deer, and African oryx for the rich to hunt down and kill for sport. Rachel Porter unwittingly joins the group on the wrong side of the party.

Caviar, anyone? BLACK DELTA NIGHT explains how Tennessee’s Mississippi River paddlefish becomes a rival to Beluga for the Russian mafia to exploit. This time Rachel goes undercover when murder is on the menu.

While her methods eventually result in catching the criminals, her way of operating tends to irritate her bosses and, once again, she is shipped off to another state. Montana, long known as home to private militias and survivalists, also has more than its share of grizzly bears. But why are they being killed along with several Native Americans? A KILLING SEASON provides a dazzling backdrop to the puzzle.

Books 7, 8 and 9 see Rachel once again shuttled off to other states to get her out of her boss’ hair. This time she is sent to Georgia with its manatees in COASTAL DISTURBANCE, and then to northern California with BLUE TWILIGHT in which a collector is obsessed with a rare butterfly. Again, Speart’s research brings reality to the characters, locales, and plot lines. In RESTLESS WATERS Rachel is back in Hawaii to chase down those who upset the fragile ecological balance.

Book 10 winds up the series with UNSAFE HARBOR involving the importation of illegal Tibetan antelope fur clothing, before Speart turns to non-fiction for her 11th book, WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.

“It deals with an actual case that is so crazy no one would believe it if I wrote it as fiction,” she said. “A Japanese national began prowling around America’s national parks. One butterfly he chased was the Apache Fritillary, catching 500 of them and shipping them back to Japan to sell.”

Following up on the true case she flew to Japan and went undercover to make friends with the man. Soon, she discovered he was setting her up. A thriller, indeed.

Whether writing non-fiction or fiction Speart spends time outlining her books before giving it its freedom. “I’m a big outliner, especially when it comes to writing a mystery. Otherwise, it’s like driving your car through a tunnel without lights on a dark night. You are bound to have an accident.”

She noted that some authors spend a year-sometimes two or three – nurturing their book. “Then comes the morning when we finally have to let go and the book takes on a life of its own.”

Speart finds that releasing a published book is exciting and frightening both at the same time. “There’s the rush of having the published book hit the stores, there’s the fear that no one will like it. But what about those folks who read your book and become angry?”

After BLUE TWILIGHT went on sale a small group of butterfly collectors felt she had attacked them, and, in turn, began attacking her.

“Apparently, I’d hit a nerve,” she said. “I’m not saying butterfly collecting is a crime but there are those who cross the line between collecting legal butterflies versus collecting protected and endangered butterflies. There are instances where even legal butterflies have been over-collected.”

The author points out that there is a class system when it comes to species being valued, and that if they were chimps, tigers and others public reaction would be one of horror. She continues the argument on her website in one of her blogs. She also discusses the difference between the two styles, saying that narrative non-fiction is fact-based storytelling employing some of the same skills that are used in fiction, setting each scene, presenting fascinating characters, and creating a strong narrative persona.

As for specific dialogue in non-fiction, Speart again brings her research to the forefront. It requires, she says, exhaustive digging which is something she enjoys. She also points out that narrative non-fiction doesn’t have to be told as purely objective journalism. Writers can bring emotion to their characters and create a sense of drama while following the story arc.

A few books that fit into the discussion are some of her favorites including In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; The Orchard Thief by Susan Orlean; The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a book that began Speart’s love affair with the city of Savannah.

Jessica Speart teaches an advanced mystery writers workshop in Connecticut, and reminds students: “You have to believe in your work and not give up. Writing is a rough business and not for the faint of heart.

A Thank-You Note That Led to Story

by Jackie Houchin

Do you like receiving a thank you note for some little thing you did (or even said)?  I recently received “three thank yous” via email (one was from my very well-trained, sweet granddaughter for a gift I sent).

It used to be something we would pound into our kids’s heads when they got birthday or Christmas gifts. “Write Aunt Dottie a thank you!”  “Tell grandma you loved her gift!” 

One boy at church ALWAYS wrote such sweet notes to me as his Sunday School or AWANA teacher. They were well thought out, and even used “bigger words” than I expected. Many had little drawings of something I might have given him. I would tell his mom that she sure trained him well, but she told me, “Oh, that’s his idea. I don’t say anything.”  Sadly he’s graduated out of my class now.  I miss his notes and illustrations.  (Yes, I’ve saved them.)

I enjoy writing thank you notes as well. I’m always surprised when someone I sent a card to exclaims “Oh, what a wonderful surprise! That was so nice of you!” Sometimes I send an email, and very occassionally a quick text message. But I enjoy writing out my thoughts on real-life cards. And since my granddaughter now has a little business* making greeting cards, I get to use all kinds of them. She’s the artist and designer.

I also write birthday and holiday cards . Dear Kerry!  Don’t make so many cute ones I just HAVE to buy and use!!

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Recently there was an article in our newspaper, The Epoch Times, January 26, 2022, titled “The Importance of Thank-You Notes”. I loved the sentiments and agreed with what was written.

This morning, February 25, 2022, there was a response in the form of letter in The Readers’ Turn section.  It is a wonderful story of one particular thank you.  Here it is (I hope it’s clear enough to read.)

As we here at The Writers In Residence are always encouraging our readers to WRITE, have any of you recently received something in the mail – snail, email, or text – that you could turn into a short story, essay, blog post, or even a poem? Ok, yes, even a utility bill that came. (Have you seen how Natural Gas prices have skyrocketed?? You could write a letter to the editor, or the company!! Haha.)

But I had something else in mind. Something creative. I recently got a snail mail letter from my sister who will be 89 next month. She is super spry physically and mentaly. She is now taking a writing class, and had to write a small piece from each of 30 prompts. She did it, and now she says her local newspaper wants to publish a few of them. Wow! Who knew? MY sister!!!

So… a thank you note that caught your attention, a birthday card, a GALentine’s Day card (yes, my granddaughter makes those!) or perhaps a mailing from a charity with a photo of a needy child, a disaster, or a pet who needs a home might spark a thought. Maybe even a gardening catalogue with seeds from an old variety of flowers that your grandma grew might inspire you to write a mini-memoir.

Go look through your mail. If you’ve got an idea now, let us know below. If it turns out nice, I might consider posting it in one of our GUEST BLOG spots this year. Just go do it! Write!

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*PacificPeachDesigns.com

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

A Life of Strange Inspirations

 by Linda O. Johnston

I wrote last time I was here about how a writer might decide what to write.  I’m going to expand upon that a bit today since I’ve been considering some strange inspirations. 

There’s one we all have these days: Covid. Should we include the pandemic in stories we’re writing now? What about a series that deals, in a fictional way with a lot of the issues and arguments and other matters relating to the disease, and how people deal with them—or don’t? I’m fascinated with the idea, but doubt I’ll dive into it.

 And then there’s what happened on my very nice residential street the other night. 

My husband and I were walking our dog Cari around the block. When we got to the fence behind the property next to our home we saw that one of the fronds of the cacti growing behind it near the street had been broken. (We live in LA.) And then my husband saw a large, dangerous-looking knife lying there and we assumed it had been used to cut the cactus. We saw blood on the sidewalk and we then assumed whoever did it had cut him or herself. My husband moved the knife but hid it to show neighbors later. We weren’t thrilled, especially my husband, who’d planted the cactus with the neighbor’s approval. 

Cut to an hour or so after we got home. Our doorbell rang, and when I answered a couple of uniformed police officers were there. Turned out someone had been stabbed in the area in the middle of the night. We have security cameras outside but they weren’t connected at the time, unfortunately. The cops had hoped we would have footage of what happened—since someone was apparently stabbed there by another person, which resulted in the fallen cactus. 

My husband gave them the knife, of course, and said he hoped they’d make it clear why his fingerprints are on it. We still have no details about what happened or why or if the police are still investigating, but you can imagine that led my mind to start wondering if I could use that in a story. 

And then a dear relative, after we related what had happened, made a suggestion about a whole mystery series based on some matters relating to that incident. 

My mind is still churning around that. But I don’t know if I’ll follow through. I’m concerned about such things happening nearby, in any event. But as a writer, of course I let it potentially inspire me for a story or more. 

And yes, some strange things can become inspirations. When should we include reality in our stories? Whenever it works—with embellishments!

Are You RESOLUTE? Or not…

Yeah, yeah, I know. Nobody makes resolutions at New Year’s anymore.  A least not ones they can keep beyond the 31st of January. (Surveys report that 47% of resolution makers can’t keep them until February 1st.)

WHY?

I have some suggestions, tips, and encouragements if you really want to change something in your life/writing in 2022.

From the Hints From Heloise column, I found these believable suggestions.

  1. Be specific.
  •  Don’t vow to “Lose weight” but, to Lose 20 pounds by May 1st.
  •  Don’t vow to “Exercise more” but, to Walk 2 miles a day for 4 days a week.
  •  Don’t vow to “Write more in 2022” but, to Write 2 chapters, or 2,000 words, or a complete short story or article each week.

2. Then add your answer to the question, “why?”

  •  Because I’m too young to be heavy and it makes me look matronly.
  •  Because walking is healthy for me, and the kids (dogs, Hubby) can go with me.
  •  Because I’m a writer and I want to finish my book and/or publish my work.
  1. Put these (your) resolutions on 3×5 cards and tape them to your bathroom mirror. Read them aloud to yourself every morning.
  2. Keep track of your progress.
  3. Reward yourself when you accomplish each one!

(If you try this, let me know how it works!)

Hey, have you heard this one? “I was going to quit all my bad habits for 2022. But then I remembered: Nobody likes a quitter!”

Here’s a unique take from The Victoria Magazine, letters, Jan/Feb.

        Says Wendy J. “Decades ago, a friend and I came up with the idea of “un-goals” instead of resolutions. This gave us permission to give up things we detested! I gave up zucchini. For years I had tried one recipe after another to use the piles of this vegetable that I received from neighbors’ gardens or the market. I finally decided that they all tasted the same because I truly dislike zucchini!”

Do you have something you really dislike and will renounce in 2022?

(Let me know, and I’ll rejoice with you!)

Do you have a (mental) list of what you want to do “someday?” Here are a few examples: (I love #2.)

  •  Finish the book I’m writing
  •  Spend a season living abroad
  •  Read that stack of books I’ve been accumulating
  •  Add weight training to my workouts
  •  Plan day trips with my family
  •  Schedule those _____________ lessons I promised myself I would take

Resolve to move these from the  “Someday” to the “In-progress” column.

(Maybe I’ll join you on those lessons!)

From Cathy Baker’s Creative Pauses Facebook group, Dec 31, 2021.  Choose a word or two as a theme for 2022. (Easier than a whole resolution.)

There are many websites that can suggest words to you, or give you ideas. Think of your goals/hopes for the New Year, and use these or other sites to help you choose.  Some even give you ideas on how to make the word stick for 365 days.

        https://elisabethmcknight.com/word-of-the-year-ideas/

(Scroll down to the 100-word list at the bottom, Abundance to Zest.)

        https://www.happinessishomemade.net/word-of-the-year-ideas-one-little-word/

(Schroll down to the 150-word, printable, non-alphabetized list.)

        OR… for heaven’s sake, we are writers & readers… pick your own. Haha!

(Let me know if you pick one and what it is, or maybe keep it secret.)

Here are some suggestions from the Orange County Register newspaper, on the personal side, with specific fill in the blanks.

  •   Mend a relationship with _______________.
  •    Be more kind to _________________.
  •    Call _______________ whom you haven’t spoken to in a long time.
  •    Adopt or foster a ___________ (animal) and take good care of it.

(Or sponsor a child.)

From an article in The Epoch Times:

  •         Get inspired by reading blogs you love (like The Writers in Residence).
  •         Begin with tiny stuff – make it a habit that is “too easy NOT to do.”
  •         Find a friend or family member for support.
  •         And lastly, don’t call them NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS, rename them as “January Objectives” or maybe even “Today’s List.”

(And check those buggers off! I’ll celebrate with you.)

For me, three for ’22:

  • Try new recipes from my “Eating Clean” cookbook at least twice a week.
  • Shorten my “screen time” by half (PC and phone). Use a timer if needed.
  • Cut out sugar (again) to help with inflammation issues.

(And YOU can check on ME at the end of the month/year. Really!)

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Our Faith Bible Church pastor gave us this verse for the year:

Romans 12:9b. “Detest evil; cling to what is good.”

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