Introducing Cynthia Naden, our Newest Writers In Residence Member.

Cynthia, we are so glad to have you in our Writers in Residence blog group. Tell us about yourself.

cynthia-nadenThank you, Jackie! I’m a native of California, I was born and raised in the Pasadena area.  My husband and I still live here, although we have talked about living elsewhere that is less expensive.  I have two adult sons and two adorable granddaughters.  We live in a condominium with two precious pups, Minnie, a mellow Maltese, and Mandy, a very precocious Terrier mix.  They keep us on our toes and give us hours of unconditional love and fun!

I bet they are cute!  When did you first get interested in writing?

I have been a writer since I was a child.  The first book I fell in love with was Pearl Buck’s Good Earth.  I subsequently read the rest of her tomes.  The first attempt at writing occurred when I was in the 4th grade and wrote about an imaginary trip I made to Australia aboard the SS Lurline.  What fun that was! Throughout my years in school, I always veered back to writing about Asia and when in college, studying for my Master’s in History found myself back in Asia but more specifically China.

Was History your only avenue of study?

No, besides my Master’s in history, I also have a Bachelor’s in English and Paralegal Studies, and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. But my writing career really took off following the completion of my last Masters.  I took a couple online writing courses and found myself writing a romantic suspense that is loosely based on a personal experience of my own.

You mean, the events in Cache Under the Stacks actually happened to you? That’s scary.

Well, some of the elements did, but not all. It is fiction. (smile)

A bookstore features prominently in the book. Do you have a favorite one?

I love bookstores. Whenever we travel my first stop is a bookstore. One of my favorites is Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, but our own Vroman’s here in Pasadena is the best of the best.

What other writing interests do you have?

I’m interested in writing historical fiction and have a couple of novels started that take place during World War II – one in Europe and the other in the Pacific Theatre. And I would someday love to write about cooking or do restaurant reviews.  Always something that I am striving towards. But my one far-fetched desire is to own a boarding house for dogs with all the amenities!

I love it!  We have some dog-lovers in our group and among our readers. They would be happy about that aspiration.  I see you have many yummy recipes on your blog as well.  Cynthia’s blog recipes

Yes, and did you notice the SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE recipe at the end of Cache Under the Stacks?

I sure did! I plan to try it soon. I love Italian food.  So, what have you in the works right now?

Starting Over 41S6cFWnPxLCache Under the Stacks was published in August 2018and Starting Over was published December 2019. Both books I “pantsed,” but now I am trying to outline and it is not as easy for me.  I’m working on a sequel to Cache Under the Stacks and a sequel to Starting Over, a woman’s fiction that has evolved into a bit of a mystery.

How about those two WWII novels you were considering? 

One is set in the late 1930s New York and London. It is called Because of You. The other one set in Pearl Harbor, and is yet to be titled, although tentatively I call it Murder in Waimea.

What are you reading now?

Reading during this “lock down” time has not been as productive as I thought it would be. I have several books on my bedside table: Woman in the Shadows by Jane Thynne; Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile; The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan; and Landing by Moonlight by Ciji Ware.

How have you been managing during the “lock-down” time?

I thought I would have gotten a lot of writing done, but it has been hard to concentrate. If anyone has any suggestions, I would gladly like to know about how to overcome this. It has been a time of great distraction.

Do you have any dreams or goals?

My dream would be for Covid to be over and to travel to London, France, and Germany. I would like also like to publish at least one book a year and if possible, someday land a traditional publisher.

Thank you, Cynthia (Cyn), for sharing your past and your heart. We are so glad to have you here, and look forward to when you will be posting alongside us next year.

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Cache Under Stacks 51iDVwGVQML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_BOOK REVIEW: Cynthia (pen-name Claire Naden) published Cache Under the Stacks, A Cate Wagner Mystery, two years ago, and I have just found and read it. It’s a story about a divorced, empty-nester bookstore owner, living alone in a nice neighborhood with her sweet pup, Minnie.

But then, she begins to get threatening phone calls from an unknown person. It doesn’t matter if she is at home, at the bookstore, or 100 miles away, he seems to know just where she is and what she is doing.  For most of the book, this stalker only terrorizes by phone, but towards the climactic end, the calls and messages get more specific. And when strange packages and people begin to appear at her bookstore, she knows her life is in danger.

Fortunately for Cate, a handsome police detective enters her life and takes an interest in her case. As the threats escalate, their relationship begins to heat up. But he can’t be with her every minute. She is alone sometimes and the stalker knows it.

Advertised as Romantic Suspense, I can assure you the book is both.  From the first pages, you will feel an unease for the main character that quickly turns into unrelenting anxiety. It’s hard to stop reading even at chapter breaks, because you simply must find out who is terrorizing the heroine and why.

Naden writes simply but in great detail. Where another author might say “She went into the house and locked the door,” this author breaks down those movements into tiny increments (fumbling with the key, dropping it, her purse strap catching on the knob, preventing her from closing the door fast). You think it would be boring, but not so. It  holds you captive while it ratchets up the suspense. You “just KNOW” someone is in the house, in her bedroom, or right behind her…

PS: You only understand the title at the very end!

 

 

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.

*

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.”

*

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.”

***

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?

 

mikoj-photo1

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)

These Are a Few of My Favorite … Reads

by Jackie Houchin

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages (from Amazon) tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things (reads)

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things (reads)
And then I don’t feel so bad” *

 

Who doesn’t know the catchy lyrics to that song? I bet you can even picture Julie Andrews singing them while twirling around. And who of us bibliophiles can’t say we have been transported and uplifted during and after reading those few special books that we cherish in our libraries.

The majority of my all-time fave books are mysteries, the old fashioned, clean, puzzling and often romantic reads that still make me smile just thinking of them.

My very favorite book was written by Mary Stewart** in 1964. But it was a few years earlier that I began my journey into this marvelous writer’s world.

Madam Talk audio 51B6UTiH4GL._SX342_I’d asked a wise librarian in Burbank if there was something beyond Nancy Drew, but kind of like her, that I could read. She looked at this budding, though still gangling young teen, and recommended Mary Stewart’s first book, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955)

I was hooked immediately!

The setting is Southern France and involves a young widow, a lovable mutt, a child in peril, high-speed car chases, and a dark and handsome man who is either villain or saint, and suspense.  Delish!

In less than a week I rushed back to the library to check out more of Mary Stewart’s books, reading down the list as fast as I could. Until I came to THE ONE. My favorite book of all time, re-read at least a half dozen times cover to cover, and often, as the song says, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

Rough Magic Audio; 61gkNEBPKYL._SX342_This Rough Magic (1964), my opiate. ***

I’m not sure what makes my breathing slow when I open the book and settle into a soft chair, but in only a few pages I am deep into the atmosphere I love that is written so well by Mary Stewart in all of her books.

A writer’s hidden retreat on the isle of Corfu in Greece… An old house with secret passages… Wisps of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, quoted by the old recluse playwright living there, that seems to foreshadow the events in the book.

A young woman recovering from a career failure, arrives at the retreat with her sister seeking rest and solace but finding danger and death. Fog along the beach at dawn so thick you can only hear the waves slapping the shore… and the wooden oars of a boat bumping in their cradles, soft murmurs and oaths from its occupants, and grunts as they drag something heavy across the sand and into the trees.

A dolphin’s seeming magical appearances play an important role. And an arrogant and handsome figure, rough in clothes and manner slips in and out of the house at all hours. Is he a killer and smuggler, or a hero?

This is no silly Gothic, but is (to me) outstanding storytelling by a “wordsmith extraordinaire” whose sense of descriptive place is beyond amazing. My favorite read!

 

Next on my list is a puzzle mystery, that just so happens to also have a murder.

marinersCompass2Mariner’s Compass (1999) is Earlene Fowler‘s sixth Benny Harper mystery, set along California’s central coast. Each of her books is named for a quilting pattern although Benny is not a quilter herself. She is a rancher and married to a cop, but she helps maintain a historical museum in town that features old quilts.

What entrances me in this book, unlike any of her other mysteries, is the puzzle. In this story Benny receives a mysterious bequest from a dead stranger. She will inherit his entire estate if she will stay in his home in Morrow Bay for two weeks. Alone. Being alone, abandoned, is something that terrifies Benny.

She agrees, although her protective hubby-cop is not fond of the idea. Soon Benny is on a strange and dangerous scavenger hunt to find the man’s true identity. The clues he leaves hidden, if carefully followed, lead to more clues in a widening spiral of strange places. The deep mystery they reveal piecemeal is totally captivating. It’s a real stunner when she finally discovers who this Jacob Chandler was, and why he was stalking her.

More than the location in Mariner’s Compass, it’s the entwined maze of clues which makes this one of my favorite books. (BTW, if you look on Fowler’s fan page, this book is the favorite of many of her fans.)

 

Old Bones, maginfierOld Bones (1987) *** by Aaron Elkins is another favorite on my list. His protagonist Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, but his moniker in the series is “bone doctor.” It is absolutely amazing what you (he) can discover from a set of fresh or ancient bones. Who they were, yes, but more importantly in the book, how, where, when, and why a person becomes bones.

Oliver himself is a big, kind of cute, socially inept “nerd” of a guy, who is brilliant with bones. I like all of his cases, but in this one, it’s the location that grabbed me, chilled me, and after many nightmares, made me book a tour to the real place in France.

Mont St Michel,  the small island off the Western coast of France topped by a towering monastery, is tour-worthy for sure. (The original cover pictures the island.) But it is the incoming tides, racing without warning at a speed faster than a man can run, over quicksand riddled mud, that terrifies me.

Yes, I went there, rode in a bus across the long, straight road from the mainland at low tide, trudged up the steep, winding road to the top, and toured the ancient building with a set of huge bells. Very Nice. Reminded me of Notre Dame.

But I could see those swirly patches of mud and sand from atop the “Mont” and in the distance a dark blue-green smudge. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get into the bus and race back to mainland safety.

You are not so lucky in Old Bones. You will suffer fear, panic and worse, when you read the final chapters. I dare you! But, it’s the reason this is one of my faves.

 

Christining Day MurderA freaky location again is the reason for my listing The Christening Day Murder (1993) by Lee Harris as a memorable favorite. (All Lee Harris’ Christine Bennett – a former nun – mysteries have a special “day” as their title.) I can’t even remember the mystery, but I remember where a good portion of it takes place.

Thirty years before, the small town of Studsburg was evacuated by the government and flooded to create a reservoir. (Feeling creepy yet?) In this story, a drought has uncovered the town’s forgotten church, along with a gruesome discovery in the dank basement. It is the skeletal remains of a 30-year-old murder.

As Christine tries to piece together the sordid puzzle from the past, the water begins rising again and she is trapped in the basement…..(Gasping scream from me!)

 

Shell SeekersAnd lastly, the wonderfully warm and well-written family saga by the gifted Rosamunde PilcherThe Shell Seekers (1987) **** (all 582 pages ) This is not a mystery, but a lovely women’s novel featuring Penelope Keeling, a 64 year old woman whose days are limited, and whose family does not understand her. A woman whose past is calling her, but whose present threatens to fence her in.

A painting which her children vie for, lusting for the wealth it will bring at her passing, but which is too sweetly precious for Penelope part with, is in the center. Instead of giving it to her children, she uses it – to their chagrin and horror – to fund one last trip into her romantic past.

In the book, sixteen characters have their own section and say. Shell Seekers is not a linear book, so the characters each tell their story, almost as if they are all in a room together, and one steps forward to knit their story into the entire piece. They form a complete picture of “Miss Penelope Keeling,” who speaks last in the book.

These multiple POVs – besides Pilcher’s amazing, evocative, sweeping, tender, gorgeous writing – makes this a favorite. It is the voices of 16 people, separate and yet forever intertwined in the story of one wonderful woman. A tear-jerker. You won’t want it to end. When it does, you’ll fly to the first page and begin again. (PS: Rosamunde Pilcher was 60 when she wrote this book.)

 

Suspense and romance, locations and mystery

Old Bones and bodies, shrouded in history

Villains and heroes revealing their deeds

These are A FEW of my favorite reads.

 

Have you got any favorite reads? What is it that makes them memorable to you? Characters, setting, style, genre, author, the writing…?

 

 

* Richard Rodgers, The Sound of Music, with my words in italics

** Mary Stewart is credited with developing the genre of romantic suspense featuring intelligent, independent, and capable women who don’t fall apart in a crisis. A reviewer wrote, “There is an old-fashioned elegance about Mary Stewart‘s writing. A stately polish with more than a hint of an old 1950’s Hollywood movie.”

*** Mary Stewart‘s mysteries are now all available in audio through Amazon/Audible. Here’s the link to This Rough Magic

**** 1988 Edgar Award Winner – Best Mystery of the year. (“Look out Sherlock Holmes!”)

***** In her introduction, Pilcher writes that she intended The Shell Seekers to be “A big fat novel for women. Something above all, that tapped into my life and the experiences of my generation.”

“OUTSIDE THE LINES” Book Review by Jackie Houchin

 

“OUTSIDE THE LINES”

  Book Review by Jackie Houchin

Sad young woman and a rain drops

Sheila Lowe’s newest Claudia Rose Forensic Handwriting mystery delivers just what you are looking for; murder and mayhem,  crime scene investigation, clues and mis-clues, secret assignations, lovers’ spats, blurred lines between right and wrong, escalating suspense, and unique to Lowe’s books, a protagonist who can read a killer’s thoughts and intents from a mere sampling of his handwriting.

OUTSIDE THE LINES begins with a bang, literally. A maid attempts to gather her vacationing employer’s mail one morning and dies after a mailbox bomb explodes in her face. LAPD Homicide Detective Joel Jovanic catches the case and quickly discerns the incident to be more than a prank.

Across town in the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building, Claudia Rose testifies as an expert witness in a murder trial involving gang member, Danny Ortiz.  Having given her condemning statement, she exits the stand, only to be ferociously attacked and nearly murdered by the unrestrained gangbanger.  Worse yet, clips of the incident replay endlessly on the local news channels, exposing not only Ortiz’s rage, but a good deal of Claudia’s brief undergarments.

Traumatized and nursing her wounds, Claudia hides at home, jumping at every noise, seeing shadows where none exist; the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Det. Jovanic is both enraged by the attack on his fiancé and anxious about her emotional state. To relieve the tension at home, he submerges himself in the mailbox bombing investigation.

Relief from her growing paranoia comes in the form of an invitation to speak at the prestigious British Institute of Graphologists Conference in the UK. Claudia gratefully accepts, but before leaving, she helps Jovanic identify the author of the bomb threat from a writing specimen found inside a nearby geo-cache container. Under the “People for Safe Food” moniker, she detects an erased signature, that of a known eco-terrorist.

In London, a surprise interview by a TV journalist puts Claudia in the limelight, and on the spot. Asked her opinion on a handwritten note found in a similar geo-cache container in London after a local bombing, Claudia is reluctant to speak. The two samples were not written by the same person, but this contradicts the resident expert’s opinion, a man Claudia knows to be untrained and biased.

Across the Pond, Jovanic’s investigation leads him to the CEO of Agrichem, a company that produces toxic pesticides. Lab reports from the mailbox bomb confirm the lethal chemical is used in Agrichem’s pesticides. The detective senses something is off, especially after interviewing the company’s reclusive “mad” research scientist.

Meanwhile Claudia meets with members of the People for Safe Food activist group and responds to their grief with compassion, earning her the ire of New Scotland Yard.  Jovanic’s interviews produce testimony just as compelling about the need for pesticides in feeding a hungry world.  Two sides of the world and two sides of a controversial issue. Which side is responsible for murder?

More cruel attacks and homicides keep Jovanic working at a manic pace, while Claudia is politely asked to leave the UK. At home, she and Jovanic face another more personal issue, which could determine the future of their life together. Finally a truce is called and the pair work together using their specialties to identify a very cold and ruthless murderer.  The detective determines to take him down, and now Claudia is the one fearing for her lover’s life.

Part fast-paced police procedural and part Sherlockian puzzle mystery, Lowe’s OUTSIDE THE LINES, delivers food for the intellectual as well as the suspense addict. And for readers like me who are fascinated with the Forensic Handwriting Analysis profession, it’s a treat indeed.  The police have sketch artists, Crime Scene Investigators, and DNA testing. Handwriting examiners testify in court, bringing evidence that often brings a guilty verdict.  But Sheila Lowe has an unstoppable crime investigating team in Claudia Rose and Detective Joel Jovanic.

OUTSIDE THE LINES Amazon link: https://amzn.com/B01IPKPRNG

sheila-uscOUTSIDE THE LINES is sixth in the popular mystery series. Sheila Lowe has also written a stand-alone thriller in which her Handwriting Specialist appears in a minor role (What She Saw). Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases.  She has begun work on the 7th book in the series, UNHOLY WRIT.

As the current president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation (a 50 yr old non-profit), Lowe is working with their Campaign for Cursive committee to bring attention to the importance of maintaining cursive training in the public school curriculum. A recently published white paper on the topic is available for free download: http://www.ahafhandwriting.org/sites/default/pdf/white-paper.pdf

For a live podcast (and transcript) interview of Sheila Lowe by Laura Brennan of Destination Mystery visit: http://destinationmystery.com/episode-17-sheila-lowe/  In it Lowe reveals more about the two major areas of handwriting analysis, as well as a formerly unrecognized “theme” to her writing that Brennan identifies.  As to her writing fiction, Lowe discloses the title of the book that got her started on her mystery writing career… at the young age of 8.  

Can you guess what it was?   Nope, not Nancy Drew.

 

WinR profile pic Jackie Houchin is a Christian writer, book reviewer, and retired photojournalist. She writes articles and reviews on a variety of topics, and occasionally edits manuscripts. She also dabbles in short fiction.  She enjoys creating Bible craft projects for kids; growing fruits, flowers, and veggies; and traveling to other countries. She also loves cats and kittens and mysteries.”