IT’S A SMALL WORLD – OR IS IT…?

 

By Rosemary Lord

Did you notice how small our world became during the Covid-19 lock-down?

For those of us in California it’s been over eighteen months of confinement, and it’s not over yet. We were prohibited from travelling, other than for emergency/essential needs. We were discouraged from meeting anyone, other than those we lived with. For those of us who live alone – too bad!  In case we caught or spread the Dreaded Disease. 

Our in-person Writers’ Conferences were cancelled. First the Left Coast Crime Conference in San Diego was cancelled March 2020, just after I’d checked in!

Even last month’s ‘Blood on the Bayou’ Bouchercon Writers’ Conference in New Orleans, was cancelled at the last minute.

Our hardworking conference organizers must have wept as years of planning were wiped away. But you can’t keep writers down for long. We always find a way… They came up with various creative online offerings.

There was no travelling to meet other writers or to research places for our stories. We stayed home, becoming ‘shut-ins,’ locked in our own little castles – be it one room or a whole rambling house. We were still ‘confined to barracks.’ We didn’t drive – there was nowhere to go. People had everything delivered. (Cardboard box-makers must be making a fortune!)

Lives the world over changed. We became resourceful. We helped relatives, friends and neighbors. We re-evaluated our world. But the fear the Media shared, became pervasive. It was – and still is – difficult to escape.

But, as writers, we had our own escape – into our  private, isolated writing world. Some writers flourished, with no distractions, completing novels, articles, scripts – all sorts. Other writers struggled, unable to concentrate. I wrote some, but not as much as I wanted.

I read a lot more. Most of us did. Unable to get the creative juices flowing and seeking diversion, I found something quick and easy, re-reading  “Eats, shoots and leaves” – which I’ve written about before. It’s Lynn Truss’s witty book on sloppy punctuation. It still made me laugh. Just what I needed. Lynn Truss bemoaned the fate of proper punctuation, claiming that it was an endangered species, due to low standards on the internet, email communication and “txt msgs”  She explained, “Eats shoots and leaves” is a joke about pandas. They eat (bamboo) shoots and leaves – and not, by the simple addition of an errant comma, a comment about a violent criminal act. (Although pandas can give a very nasty bite.)

Then there’s Michael Caine’s interpretation of a line in a script that read,  “What’s that in the road ahead?” By adding a simple dash, Caine had his fellow actors in fits of laughter when he announced: “What’s that in the road – a head?”

Or the Australian take on bad punctuation, taught in schools as a way of making students remember the grammatical rules: “Let’s eat Grandpa,” sends Aussie kids into helpless giggles with such a picture. But it’s not a cannibalistic suggestion, merely the absence of a comma in a sentence that should read:  “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”  That’s why Eats, Shoots and Leaves became so popular, reminding us of school lessons that seem to have vanished in today’s hurried world.

So, my lock-down reading provided some laughs, and I learned a lot of new things. (Just don’t get me started on Social Media for Dummies, or U-Tube attempts to teach me ‘techie’ things with my computer or Social Media. Urgghh!)

But at least I discovered a terrific search engine: DuckDuckGo – where you don’t get followed by advertisements and constantly besieged by sales pitches for something you were looking up. 

My reading veered from my usual research about Old Hollywood, to total escapism. Mysteries in far off places: Peter Mayle’s The Marseille Caper, Victoria Hislop’s The Island and Rosanna Ley’s The Saffron Trail – to name just three. Clearly a theme here: my yearning to travel again!

Unless you’re half of a writing partnership – we write alone. Although, when I’m immersed in my writing, I’m enjoying a world with all sorts of characters – so I don’t feel alone. Our writing community is filled with a smart, imaginative assortment of writers. But this long, lock-down was different.  And as much as we did Zoom Meetings, phone-calls and Webinars, we missed that personal interaction, spontaneity, the regular Coffee Shop meetings sharing our latest pages and new ideas. We missed meeting friends – especially the hugs. Waving at the end of a Zoom meeting is not the same.

So now, as we venture out again, we are cautious. Driving any distance, after eighteen months of only running local errands, was most disconcerting. The intrepid journey on not just one, but three, freeways, took me back to learning to drive when I was seventeen – in a clunky old Morris that would not go much faster than thirty miles an hour. I was right back there on that quiet English road, holding my breath until I reached my destination. I found going to a shopping center almost overwhelming. Where did all these people come from? I’d got used to the quiet isolation of my apartment building. But I wasn’t alone. We had stopped interacting with each other. Stopped those lovely unexpected meetings of friends and acquaintances we bumped into on the street. We’d not been out on the street for eighteen months.

 But I discovered that friends and family were going through the same thing. The enforced isolation was more difficult than many of us realized. Not wanting to make light of kidnap victim’s suffering – but many people appear to be suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

We’d learned to keep ourselves ‘safe.’  Our world had become so small. Walking out again into the big, brash, noisy world was scary. It was tempting to run back inside and close the door. But, adventurers at heart, we writers have stepped back into the fray. Into that great big, bright, scary world again, that’s just waiting for our participation and our imagination. Hey, World, we’re back!

 

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Mystery People

by Jill Amadio

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

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

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

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

But why so many series?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

How does she manage to keep them all straight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Phew! Makes me feel pretty lazy – again.

Where Do I Go From Here or Do I Blame Covid?

By Cynthia C. Naden  (writing as Claire Naden)

Small Cynthia Period Images #3As I sit at my computer and think back to 2014, I recall how devastating it was to me when I was forced into early retirement. But on the flip side, I looked forward to writing full time.

My first book, Cache in the Stacks, was loosely based on my personal experience of receiving a threatening phone call in the middle of the night. I used that as the premise for Cache, and my writing took off. When I discovered a historical twist that fit into my plot, I asked myself, “Why not write historical fiction?” which I love to read and always wanted to write.

I had an idea and began to develop my characters, settings, timeline, and plot twists. I wrote snippets starting in 2016 and revised my title but kept my characters and the basic premise intact. I wasn’t sure what subgenre it fell into, having started it as a historical romance, and it morphed into a murder mystery taking place during World War II.

In the meantime, I had an idea for a woman’s fiction that would start in my hometown of Pasadena, California, and move quickly to Kauai. Coincidentally, my husband and I planned a trip for our anniversary to Kauai, and I found the perfect opportunity to research my new novel. I gathered information and made contacts on the island, hoping that I would be able to have a book launch at a bookstore on the Garden Island in the future. I couldn’t believe how fast I wrote this book. It was published in December 2019.

I was happy to publish a book a year, but my historical fiction still sat with a few words written here and there. I knew where I wanted to go with it but didn’t know how to get there. To say I was stumped would be an understatement.

Then Covid hit, and my plans to launch my woman’s fiction were put on hold. Covid put me into a state of depression, and I lost my ambition to write. Thankfully, my critique group’s twice-monthly Zoom meetings kept me accountable. I started writing sequels to my first two books. But my historical sat in a holding pattern. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it but I couldn’t put the “pedal to the metal” and take off with it.

I ask myself do I stay where I am where it’s comfy or move forward with my historical fiction? How can I pull myself up from the utter pits of despair I have felt for the past year?  I don’t think so. My word for 2021 is persevere, and this is what I plan to do: sit down, pull up my manuscript on the computer and write what I dearly love: stories set during World War II, which satisfy my desire to write historical mysteries. Covid may still be here, but I refuse to let it impede my writing. I will persevere!

More about Cynthia, her books, and a review of Cache Under the Stacks

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Catching Up on Mystery Reads

headshotJacqueline Vick is the author of over twenty published short stories, novelettes and mystery novels. Her April 2010 article for Fido Friendly Magazine, “Calling Canine Clairvoyants”, led to the first Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mystery, Barking Mad About Murder. To find out more, visit her website at http://www.jacquelinevick.com.

 

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It is so important for a writer to read. Not only will she keep abreast of what’s out there and (hopefully) enjoy the process, but she can discover new writing styles, get ideas for her books, and even learn new vocabulary words.

When my computer crashed a few weeks ago, I had the time to dig out a few selections from my very large pile of books waiting to be read. It was refreshing, like forgetting to drink water for a while and then experiencing the benefits when you finally do. I was delighted by some of the mysteries I discovered as well as by new novels by authors I’d previously enjoyed. Here’s a sample. Check them out. I think you’ll like them.

Quirky Quiz ShowSally Carpenter put out a post about her new book The Quirky Quiz Show Caper. I saw it on Facebook. (Hint: Don’t be afraid to promote your books, gently, on social media.)  I immediately downloaded a copy, realized I hadn’t read the previous book, and downloaded that one, too. (See? Promotion pays off!)

The thing I love about the Sandy Fairfax mysteries is their light-hearted approach. Sandy is a former teen idol trying to get his lifeCunning Cruise Ship Caper back together at 38 after drying out.  The choices available to him at this point in his career are pretty cheesy, but as grandma used to say, beggars can’t be choosers.

The characters and the dialogue and the situations play out like an old sitcom. That’s the genius of these books. With Carpenter’s knowledge of theater and television, the sets come to life.  Simply put, they are fun, and I can’t wait for the next one.

I have to admit I’ve fallen woefully behind on Diane Vallere’s Samantha Kidd mysteries, so I grabbed a copy of Pearls Gone Wild and dove in, which is kind of like eating dessert before dinner, since I had missed a few books between this, her sixth, and the first book in the series, Designer Dirty Laundry.

Pearls Gone WildI’m glad I did, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the excitement. Samantha and Nick Taylor just may move their relationship to a new level, but will the handsome photographer Dante get in the way? And what’s Dante doing hanging around Samantha at Christmas anyway? He’s lending brotherly support to his sister Cat whose husband has just been murdered. Did I mention Cat is eight months pregnant? If you think it sounds like a soap opera, you’re right. Twists and surprises galore but without the annoying “scene hold” before commercial break.

Then, as I was dropping off my batteries at the library for recycling, I thought I would slip inside for a quick peek. Staring at me, front forward on the shelf, was Louis Penny’s How the Light Get’s In.  I grabbed that and two Donna Leon books and, yes, made my reading pile larger, with deadlines.

Cajun Christmas KillingI’ll have to wait until October for the next Ellen Byron novel, A Cajun Christmas Killing, and I’ve been to several bookstores looking for Ashley Weaver’s The Essence of Malice. Ooh! Did I just see an Amory Ames Kindle Single? Another for the pile!the essence of malice

In case you’re worried that I might be crushed by my growing stack of books, I did make headway on the reading pile with a few novels that I had previously downloaded to “give the author a try,” Unfortunately, I was disappointed. I won’t mention them by name because it’s just my opinion and everybody has to start somewhere. I’d hate to have my first book, written before I had gained experience, trashed online.  The point is that authors shouldn’t limit themselves to favorites. When I recognize something I don’t like, it’s a good reminder to keep it out of my own books.

Are there mysteries that you’ve discovered that you love, love, love? Share them in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

And So What Do You Bring to the Party?

99be9-gayle51closeupA former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy, Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in book form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

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If you are a writer, you do research. If you are a good writer, you do a lot of research. If you are a procrastinator/writer, you do even more research and very little writing. That isn’t good. The least we can do is check out facts to make sure we have has much right as possible. The worst we can do is to put so much in a story that the story gets lost in the endless details.

Any writer knows it is rather embarrassing to write about our hero driving south on a street (in a city where we have obviously never been) only to learn later that the street is one-way going north. It happens. Google Maps makes it a lot easier to find out about streets in towns we have never seen. If all else fails, make up the town and the street and do what you want.

There is technical stuff that some writers drop into their tomes to make it more interesting. Hopefully they check with people who actually know about the activity so they get it right. That research is great. I do a lot of it. Often I learn way more than is necessary for the tale I am telling. I edit out much of the knowledge lest I turn the story into a How To book.

But what about stuff you actually know? When you get to be a certain age, you should have done things in life like have a few jobs or a few hobbies. I have had my share of jobs and lived quite a few places and have hobbies up the wazoo. So, you ask, how have I used my knowledge in my books?

Got a minute?
ralphmbartosprintlarge    My father was in the Air Force. We traveled a lot. I lived on Okinawa and in France as well as in Memphis (near Elvis) and here in California. There were a few other military bases along the way and many of these places turn up in my SPYGAME Trilogy. I used some of my father’s experiences as a pilot during World War II and afterwards, as well as my imagination, to concoct an intriguing set of stories. The first one, The Odd Man, deals mostly with WWII and the Bay of Pigs. I went to a boarding school in France and that place finds a home in book two, Dry Bones. Book three, Star Power, wraps up the trilogy by bringing back characters from books one and two for a climax ending up in Southern California with some Hollywood stars tossed in for fun, though some are positively deadly.

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There is a lot of history plus my own experiences in those books. I actually use a few pictures my mother and I took while living in these places in the book. As one of my characters and I say: “The facts are true. I made up the rest.”

But I mentioned my own jobs as being hands-on research for my books. Let me tell you a story. I wrote my three spy novels and tried to get them published many years ago. I wasn’t having any luck. By then I had moved to California, married, and was writing yet another book that didn’t get published until later. My wonderful husband noticed my frustration and said this: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a detective novel?”

I had been a detective about a dozen years earlier. I actually went undercover in a variety of places looking for bad guys. Maybe…

I started thinking about a detective series. Then I got on a jury. I thought this might be a perfect segue into a plot. The jury thing ended when the case was settled out of court and I went home. Then Richard got on a case. He was to appear the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were to be picked. He wasn’t in that cattle call, but he saw the media circus downtown with the television cameras and helicopters and reporters. He came back with a vivid view of the proceedings. Then the ad nauseam media coverage ensued.
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But that case wasn’t the first or last to hyperventilate on TV. Experts came out of the woodwork and threw out their “wisdom” and opinion long before a jury was even seated. THAT was going to be my story. What happens when the media orchestrates the justice? My book, Media Justice, was the first in the Ginger Caulfield P.I. series.

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Speaking of jobs, I worked over a decade in a bank dealing with stocks and bonds. That’s where I met Richard. (Do I have to say that was the best job I ever had?) I dealt with millions and millions of dollars daily. Then one day we got free tickets to the Santa Anita Racetrack. Richard and I went. I explored. I found a terrific place to find a body… I combined horse racing and hedge funds and got Hedge Bet out of it.

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The third book in the series was the result of my fellow writer and friend, Jackie Houchin, doing an article about the local dam up here in the Foothills where I live. She took a terrific picture of the dam before the retrofitting took place. It was so ominous. It reeked of mystery. It ended up as the cover shot on Damning Evidence. Jackie wrote a great interview of the guy who lived up at the dam. I knew I was going to use that character someway, somehow. And I did.

caverns-cover-only-updated-smallHere’s another story. When I was on assignment in Chicago as a P.I., I lived in an apartment near Lake Michigan. It was February. A brutal winter. I had to take the subway and a bus to the job at night. I worked from 5 p.m. until 2 in the morning. I survived Chicago. Years later I heard a story from a co-worker in California about a police officer in New York City who ran across something rummaging around in garbage cans down an alley. He shot it. It was a rat. It weighed in at 105 pounds. I moved the rat and his friends to snowy Chicago and I have them eating away the garbage on which a large area of The Windy City was built after the Great Fire. This was near the lake. Huge caverns have been carved out under the condos around the lake. Disaster looms. That book is Caverns.

All of these prior books have a connection to my actual life. But so do my Christmas books. This is where my hobbies come in. I collect Santas. I have around 4000. I have made some, bought many. And I used to work in a miniature store called Miniature World. We sold dollhouses. Ibookcoverpreviewcropped started making my own and making vignettes. I had an idea for a Christmas castle that I designed. I still have the sketch. I decided to write a story to go along with the idea of this castle. Then I decided to build the castle and make the figures that went with the story. Then I published the book. The first one was Bearnard’s Christmas.

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I say first because there is a second book coming out this Christmas called The Santa Claus Machine. I am currently working on the third, Every Castle Needs a Dragon.

Now you might say there is no research in fantasies. Well, I added pictures to these books. I had to have things to photograph that fit the story. My Christmas collection is vast. I have reindeer and animals and sleighs and miniature toys that fit my stories. I must have been saving them just for these books.

The third book needed fairies and a dragon and a miniature diving helmet… I just happened to have this stuff tucked away. I guess I have been researching this story even before I got the idea for it.

But we all have stuff to bring to the party. What do you have in your imagination closet that you can pull out to enhance a character or plot? Maybe there is somebody in the family who influenced you. Or a place you lived that aches to be part of a story. Be an archaeologist of your own life and dig for those relics that will set your story apart. Let the party begin.