The Secret Books of Poison

by Alan Bradley

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself!

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

 

A Novel Based on a Terrifying 9/11 True Story

by Jill Amadio

The big “What if…” offers writers a limitless world of characters, plots, settings, and time frames, a chance to change history, to bend it a little. What if Henry VIII died at birth? What if General William Sherman never undertook his famous March to the Sea? Shakespeare would have been deprived of many of the plots for his plays and Scarlett O’Hara would have had no reason to be created.

The good news is, much of our past provides those who write historical fiction with stepping off points for their novels, with real characters who resound throughout the ages but can be given sham qualities they never possessed in real life.

Yet, how much twisting of the truth do these books require to suit the author’s fictional story? Is it a dilemma, a difficult choice, or a decision to blithely rewrite history? As for those writing non-fiction, do the same criteria apply?

The case of James Frey comes to mind as I mention it in my new novel that is – surprise! – based on a true story. Frey’s memoir, “a Million Little Pieces,” was revealed as fake although he was reported to have asked his publisher to release the book as a novel. However, Random House decided sales would be greater as a true story. To his credit Frey admitted he fabricated and exaggerated parts of the book.

Which brings me to a personal point regarding fiction, non-fiction, and writing the truth. A few months after September 11, 2001 I was approached by a young woman who said she had been married to one of the hijackers. She wished to tell her story.  As a ghostwriter I published several memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies under my clients’ names.

Long story short, I wrote the book for her. Then I printed it out and slipped it into a drawer. I didn’t look at it either in hard copy or digital form but kept the document on my laptop and on a thumb drive during all the years since.

The pandemic, forcing writers into greater isolation than usual, and for more than a year, has changed our way of life, and in my case, shredded any writerly income I was making as a hired hand. During those 13 months I thought about books I’d written and set aside, and decided to take a second look at the 9/11 story.

For several reasons I decided to turn the true story into as a novel. Luckily, I had retained all the documents including the marriage certificate, divorce decree, photos of her with the Said Arabian she married at 17 years old, and cassette recordings of her and her family. I also had written a 40-paqge non-fiction book proposal which resulted in my being signed up by a top New York literary agent. It was 13 months after the 9/11 attacks. However, the upshot was that no publisher would touch it.  The agent suggested they were afraid of reprisals because the book provides a rare, under-the-radar- glimpse into the terrorists’ personal lives in America, their loves of strip clubs and pizza, for instance, and the kinds of activities that should have served as red flags to law enforcement agencies.

Turning the non-fiction story into fiction was easy. I had all the background I needed both on tape, with photos,  and in documents. With Frey’s experience in mind I was careful to stick to the truth to back everything up but as the book was fiction, who would worry about its origin? The subtitle clearly states that the book is based on a true story.

Over the past two weeks I have received glowing reviews, all 5-star to date, and my dear neighbor, a retired CEO of a large company who writes a newsletter, said he’d be happy to give it some space. He added as an afterthought that would have to write the word “true” in quotes. He did not believe any of it happened, that it was too far-fetched. At first I remonstrated, then told him I really didn’t care if he believed it or not. I knew the truth.

Which brings me back to the point of this post: authors taking actual history, or history as reported, and subverting it to their own ends to make a book more interesting as some of our greatest writers have done. Is there a lesson here? Will youngsters believe the fiction or the real truth?

 

 

 

 

 

How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

Social Media Links:

 

 

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Writing From Jeopardy!

by Sarah Beach

In 1990, I was hunting for my first job in the film & television industry, after spending about six years getting used to living in Los Angeles. I had social circles, a church home, and after four and a half years working at the County Law Library and then several months doing temp work, I finally got what seemed like a good prospect for an entry level job.

It was a blind ad in one of the trade papers, the Hollywood Reporter. “Wanted: researcher for quiz show. Send resume and cover letter to PO Box.” It gave the address. There was nothing more than that. I looked at that and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” After all, I had two degrees in English, which had included doing a lot of research on my own, for my own writing projects. And then there was over eight years of working in libraries, first at the University of Texas at Austin, and then the Law Library. Resume and cover letter were sent in, and then more temp work while waiting to hear anything back.

Then came the call: “This is Jeopardy! Can you come take the contestant test and a proofreading test on Saturday morning?” You bet I could! (Actually, I was very thankful it was on a Saturday. At that week, my temp job was full time weekdays and I would have been hard put to skip any work.) I showed up at the test location, and there were maybe 60 or so people sitting waiting. One guy looked around, fascinated, who said, “Are these all the people who answered the ad?” I don’t recall if I actually answered out loud, but I certainly thought, “No. These are just the people they called in based on the resumes and letters.” Once we filed into the testing location, it was explained to us that the producer was looking for people who were at least as smart as the show’s contestants.

Once the testing was done, we were let go, and then came another waiting period. By the time I got a call to come in for an interview, my temp job had been cut back to part time, so I was able to schedule my interview without losing any work time. I thought the interview went well, because certainly the prospect of working for the show had great appeal.

I like to think that my closing line of the interview helped cap it for me: I told the head writer that I was an info-junky, that I liked to collect fascinating information of all sorts.

A couple of weeks later, the last day of my temp job, in fact, I got a call from the producer. He told me the starting pay (precisely the minimum amount I had calculated I would need to meet my living expenses), and I said okay to that. He asked if I could start on Monday. And I said absolutely. So from doing temp work, I stepped straight into what is almost the only secure job on Hollywood, working for the quiz show Jeopardy! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title, which is trademarked).

The hallmark of Jeopardy! and what makes the audience trust it so much, is the level of attention paid to getting the facts correct. Everything, every little factoid in the clues is double sourced. In the office, the by-word was “There is no such thing as common knowledge.” Things like “Paris is the capital of France” were double sourced from two independent sources (usually something like an encyclopedia and an almanac). Only direct sources (quoting directly from a literary work, for instance) could be single sourced. So, a quote from Bartlett’s was not allowed to stand on its own, you had to find the original source (preferably) or another non-Bartlett’s quotation source.

On any particular day, as a researcher, I could be delving into five to seven different categories which could cover anything from Shakespeare movies to astrophysics to word play to the Crimean War. The object was to make sure the writers had read their original source correctly (they only had to cite the sources they used for their clues, the researchers had to find the second sources to verify the information). Then off we went to make sure everything passed muster. Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t.

So how does this affect someone as a writer, outside of those specifically formulated clues for the quiz show?

As I had said in my job interview, I am an info-junky. I like learning things, and many of those little side bits of information have found their way into my own fiction. A day reading about plasma energy ended up giving some background to a science fiction story I was working on. I learned little tid-bits about stamp collecting and coin collecting that could be used in mystery stories. Researching a popular legend about an English historical figure for a game category ended up inspiring a novel I am currently working on (now, several years after leaving the show). Any writer should spend some time just wandering through encyclopedias, or other collections of information. Staying stuck in your own interests can leave you much too predictable in your choices as a writer.

But another thing those years working on the show did for me was really hone my research skills. I learned how to focus in on the points I needed to learn, and how to find them. Instead of trying to do all the research upfront for a novel, do the basic stuff that you need (details of locations, basic attire, diet, and such) and then get on with telling your story. If you reach a point where you want to add something, then you can stop and do spot research for those particular elements.

For instance, that novel I mentioned I’m currently working on: it’s set in the spring, in the medieval period, in England. I wanted to have a scene where an orchard of trees was in bloom, with wildflowers rampant in the grass below. All of a sudden I went, “Oops, I know about the date I have this story going. Are the apple trees in bloom yet, or do they bloom later – or worse, earlier?” Research ahoy! Turns out, those trees would indeed be blooming just as I needed them. Elsewhere at one point, I was going to have my female main character prepare for a feast, and I was thinking she’d put on a velvet gown. But then I went, “Wait. When did velvet come to England? What was it made of? Would she have had velvet?” Turns out, not likely. Fine wool it is, then. Not rough stuff, but tightly spun, tightly woven, high quality wool, dyed black. “Oops, wait again. What cloth dyes were available?” More research required on medieval dyes in England.

While I worked on the show, I often told people it was a great job for a writer who was not yet making a living from their writing. I looked at more material than I would have if left to my own devices. And I have pretty broad, eclectic interests. 

The other thing about working on the show that greatly influenced my writing was learning the importance of choosing the right word. Not just the most evocative one, but the most accurate. In a Jeopardy! clue, the wrong wording can throw the whole thing into inaccuracy. But also, word choice can influence the implications of what is being said. Do you mean this to be cast in a negative light, or in a positive one? How you choose to word something can make a great deal of difference about where your Reader’s mind goes. Do you mean to imply that your hero feels contempt toward the women he meets? If not, be careful about saying that he “smirks” at them, when all you really mean is that he is smiling. If you want him to be really vicious about it, then say he “sneers” at them.

Close is not good enough for storytelling. You are trying to weave a spell over your audience, ensnare them in the world of your tale, shutting out the “real world” for a time. Choosing the right word, with the right tone and connotation is important.

In conjunction with that, pay attention to the casual language you give your characters. It is very easy for our everyday idioms to creep into our writing when we are caught up in our first draft. We don’t always register when it happens. “Okay” is a prime example of this: it’s very modern and very American. “Plugging into” something belongs to the age of electricity and afterward. Not knowing the source of idioms is what gives us people writing things like “give free reign” to mean giving someone a wide open choice. Unfortunately, the proper phrase is “give free rein”, which literally mean to let the horse run where it would. To “reign” is to rule, and so “to give free reign” is actually a bit contradictory.

Eventually, the time came for me to get out of Jeopardy! and I moved on. It was a great job to have, and made a big difference for me as a writer.

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About the Author

Color headshot

Now residing in Las Vegas, I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when 16. After getting my Masters degree in English, I moved to Hollywood, because of the high demand for Medievalists (NOT!). As a freelance writer and editor, I find that Nevada offers better conditions for the wallet. I love writing all sorts of things, and occasionally also create some artwork.

Visit Sarah’s Website here

 

 

This article was posted for Sarah Beach by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

Time-Tripping to 1902: The Mary MacDougall Mysteries

By Richard Audry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

A Pretty Plot  A Pretty Little Plot

Stolen Star  The Stolen Star

DaughtersDoubt  A Daughter’s Doubt

A FATAL FONDNESS   A Fatal Fondness

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

 

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

 

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

 

Clothes Make the Character

By guest author,  Sally Carpenter

If you saw a stranger walking down the street, what can you tell from her clothes? Sherlock Holmes could determine the social standing, wealth, occupation, education and gender of persons by their clothes.

Authors use to spend much time in describing their characters’ garments, sometimes to a fault. Without TV or film, writers felt they needed many words to help readers depict the characters in their minds.

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Arthur Conan Doyle writes: “His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-colored silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up to his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . .” Sensory overload!

Nowadays writers limit their characters’ physical description, because readers often skip over lengthy sketches to get to the action, and also to encouraging readers to imagine their own selves in the story.

Nancy Ddrew 2The only physical description we have of Nancy Drew is her “titian hair” and “blue eyes.” However, we hear a lot about her chic wardrobe and apparently endless clothes closet. Beyond her stylish threads, Nancy often dresses in costumes and old garments found in attic trunks. When the books were originally released in the 1930s, low-income readers could imagine  wearing Nancy’s pretty outfits for themselves.

Cozy mysteries continue the trend of “less is more.” Clothes are mentioned briefly, if at all. With the modern heroine’s casual lifestyle, her wardrobe consists of tee-shirts, sweats and jeans. Readers want a quick and easy read without wading through mounds of description.

But when I started writing my Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series, clothing was crucial.

Flower_Power_Fatality_jpg (1) (1)The books are set in 1967, an era of vibrant and varied clothes. Poodle skirts and bobby socks gave way to miniskirts and pillbox hats. East Indian garments were in style. The “British invasion” of roc

 

k music also brought English designers such as Mary Quant. African Americans adopted styles that expressed their ethnicity. The hippies had their own unique forms of dress.

Clothing of the 1960s differs so much from today’s styles that I had to describe nearly everything that people wore. I tried to keep such explanations to a minimum, yet the clothes were essential to place the reader into the era.

My protagonist, Noelle McNabb, is single and 25 years old. She apparently spends most of her income on clothes. In the first book, “Flower Power Fatality,” Noelle wears 14 different outfits! And her clothes are new, many purchased at the big city mall. She talks about how she loves shopping and checking out the latest fashions.

In finding clothes for Noelle, I’ve used a few costumes that I’ve seen in 1960s TV shows. I also have a great reference book, “Fashionable Clothing from the Sears catalogs: Mid 1960s.” The book has actual photos (and prices) from the era’s Sears mail order catalogs. I’d love to see those clothes come back into style, as they’re more beautiful and feminine than the women’s tee-shirts and leggings sold today.

Clothes also express the generation gap. When Noelle wears a miniskirt to church, her mother complains that the dress is too short. Mom is clad old, fussy dresses with below-the-knee skirts. Mom wears stockings and garter belts; Noelle is in pantyhose and colored tights.

In the 1960s, women wore dresses more frequently than today. I put Noelle in dresses most of the time. Even when she wears pants at her record store job, she’s in nice slacks and pant suits. The only time she’s in dungarees is when lounging around home.

Jeans are reserved for my “bad boy” characters, a group of young males who spend their time racing their choppers, shooting craps and smoking Marlboro cigarettes. In the mid 1960s denim was only slowing becoming acceptable as a fashion choice.

afro in orangeDestiny King is an African American agent who takes Noelle on her spy missions. Destiny sports a trimmed Afro and frequently wears jumpsuits. Her clothes are functional in more ways than one way. For example, she has a pair of earrings that are really plastic explosives.

My hippie couple, Rambler and Moonbaby, are the most fun to cloth. Hippies wore an eclectic style, often put together from castaways and thrift store finds. Styles, patterns and colors did not need to match. One useful reference book is “The Hippie Handbook” by Chelsea Cain, which has a chapter on “How to Dress Like a Hippie” and information on making skirts out of old jeans and how to tie-dye a shirt.

Trevor Spellman is a newspaper reporter on the prowl for a big scoop. He rebels against the small-town norms by wearing his hair long—below his ears—and he never puts on a tie. In the 1960s the collarless shirt became appropriate for formal/dress wear.

The clothing of Mr. Baldwin, the audio-visual technician at the high school, describes him well: white shirts, skinny dark ties, dark pants, plastic-rim glasses and a “dorky haircut.” Did “geek” and “nerd” pop into your head?

What the retired Army colonel wears also paints a picture. He’s in an Army bomber jacket over a khaki shirt. “His voice was as crisp and sharp as the creases pressed into his khaki pants.” Even in retirement he runs his life with military precision.

Clothes can describe a character more efficiently than a long list of traits, helping a reader to visualize a person more so that relying on the reader’s imagination alone.

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NEW Carpenter photoSally Carpenter is native Hoosier living in southern California.  She has a master’s degree in theater, a Master of Divinity and a black belt in tae kwon do.

Her Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol books are: The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper (2012 Eureka! Award finalist), The Sinister Sitcom Caper, The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper and The Quirky Quiz Show Caper.

Her Psychedelic Spy series has Flower Power Fatality and the upcoming Hippie Haven Homicide (2020).  Sally has stories in three anthologies and a chapter in the group mystery Chasing the Codex.

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles. Reach her her at Facebook or  http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com or scwriter@earthlink.net.

 

This article was posted for Sally Carpenter by Jackie Houchin

 

What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?

 

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

*****

 

(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting a New Series

by Elise M. Stone

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I put that dream on hold for decades while I got married, had a family, and built a career. It was one of the many things on my “someday” list. Then 9/11 happened, and I realized that “someday” might never happen. If I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get started.

I’ve written nine cozy mysteries in two different series over the past few years. Cozies generally have a romantic subplot, and mine are no different. While writing the last book, I realized I was enjoying writing the romance more than the mystery. What if my next book was a romance novel instead of a mystery? An intriguing question, which I decided to answer.

I began 2019 by starting on a sweet historical western romance series for a change of pace. This has been coming for a long time. Years, in fact, although I didn’t realize it myself at the time.

I have trouble sleeping. In the quiet, my brain is like a hamster on one of those spinning wheels. It thinks of all kinds of things it should not be worrying about at midnight. I have to distract it in order to fall asleep.

OTRW-TotTROne of the things that helps is listening to a podcast of Old Time Radio Westerns. Before most of the classic western series of the 1950s and 1960s were on television, they were on radio. I grew up with those TV series, so the stories, while different, are very familiar. Now I fall asleep to the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke or the less-familiar Frontier Gentleman.

I’ve been absorbing these stories in my dreams for at least two years.

I find the time between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, when cowboys and outlaws and marshals were in their heyday, fascinating. The legends in themselves are romantic.

But I’d forgotten how hard it is to start a new series in a new genre. There are new characters in a new place in a new time.  The people are like cartoon outlines with indistinguishable features. They’re not even wearing any clothes. They’re white blobs like the Pillsbury Doughboy. This is quite a change from going back to my senior citizens in the fictional town of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona, characters I love who live in places I’ve visualized dozens of times.

Another stumbling block is the historical aspect of this series. I often find myself stopped with questions like when did the railroad arrive in Tucson? (1880, which means I can’t use it because my story takes place in 1872.) Or did Philadelphia have mass transit in 1872? (It did: a horse-drawn streetcar.) Or handling issues of diversity for today’s sensitive audience.

The biggest threat to the settling of southern Arizona was Apache raiders. The attitude of most back then was that the only way to solve the problem was to exterminate the Apache. This was the opinion of not only whites, but Mexicans and the Papago, an Indian tribe now known as the Tohono O’odham. In fact, these three groups banded together and massacred a group of over ninety Apaches, mostly women and children, in a peaceful settlement outside Camp Grant in 1871. But not all Apaches were peaceful, and they were a serious problem for the ranchers and miners and homesteaders in the late nineteenth century.

And then there’s the romance plot itself. I bought several books on how to write a romance novel because—ahem—I’d only read one or two of them prior to this year. Unlike cozy mysteries, where I’d read hundreds over the years before I tried to write one, I had no gut feel about how a romance needs to work. A lot of times, I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark.

I know, eventually, the whole story will start playing itself out in my head faster than I can type. I’m looking forward to that stage because that’s when the magic happens. In fact, it happened for a time his past week as I was writing a scene and the characters started interacting in a way I’d never thought they would. I love when that happens. So I’ll keep pushing forward, stumbles and all, because I’m addicted to that magic.

And I love a happily ever after.

 

 

Elise StoneBest Photo Reduced Size Lavender Background 2Brief Bio:

Elise M. Stone was born and raised in New York, went to college in Michigan, and lived in the Boston area for eight years. Ten years ago she moved to sunny Tucson, Arizona, where she doesn’t have to shovel snow. With a fondness for cowboys and westerns, Arizona is the perfect place for her to live.

Like the sleuth in her African Violet Club mysteries, she raises African violets, although not with as much success as Lilliana, who has been known to win the occasional prize ribbon. Elise likes a bit of romance with her mysteries. And mystery with her romance. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while she writes.

Elise StoneAVC Series Six Books
Elise M. Stone
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Elise M. Stone’s article was posted by The Writers In Residence member Jackie Houchin.

Creating Seasonal Articles*

Christmas sugar plumsby Jackie Houchin

Does reading all those December magazines with their holiday stories, recipes, tips, traditions, and inspirations make visions of sugar plums, er, I mean, ideas for articles to dance on your head?

“Oh dear! I so wanted to write an article about those fun games we play for identifying Grandma’s tag-less gifts under the tree!” (Family Circle Magazine?)

“And how I wished I’d shared my Mom’s Christmas fruitcake recipe from her recipe box (that I inherited this year when she died), and told all who read the article why they really should try fruitcake again.”  (Reminiscence Magazine?)

But, I forgot to write them.

And now it’s too late – WAY too late.

At least for this year.

But not for next year, if I plan ahead.  Many magazines need seasonal articles. But they need them long before the pub date. Articles with a “time-tag” are a good way for new writers to break into print (or seasoned writers to pick up some pocket money).

It’s all in the timing

Start by picking up Chase’s Calendar Of Events and look ahead to see what holidays will be celebrated in six months to a year. Or you can check the guidelines in the new The Writers Market Guide for specific publications you hope to write for.

Send a query letter with your idea ahead of the suggested time. If you get a go-ahead, be sure to deliver your article on time. And be patient. If it isn’t used in 2018, it may be held till 2019.

Low-profile holidays

Brain storm ideas for the less popular holidays, such as Arbor Day, Grandparents’ Day, Flag Day, Patriot Day, Friendship Day, Bastille Day, Poppy Day, or even…. Cookie Baking Day! (December 18)  Also think about back-to-school and summer vacation themes.

Your special “slant”

If those “sugar plum” ideas aren’t already dancing away up there, then:

  • Leaf through old magazines (yours or at the library).
  • Think about experiences you’ve had during holidays.
  • Write a short biography of a person linked to a holiday.
  • Research a holiday custom.
  • Remember anniversaries. (What happened 5, 10, 500 years ago?)
  • Interview a teacher, a parent, a coach, a Macy’s clerk.
  • Write a holiday short story or poem. (Some magazines are still open to them.)

Christmas funny poem

Before and After Tips

Start an idea folder with clipped articles from magazines or newspapers. Jot notes about ideas on each. Not all will be usable, but many will work. When you’re looking for a certain seasonal theme, these may trigger an idea.

After the original-rights sale, look for reprint markets for next season. Make a list of potential ones and their lead times, and keep your original article with them.

Open a new bank account!

Christmas bank accountJust kidding!  You won’t get rich from these sales, but you will get “writing clips.”  And when magazine editors discover your timely, well-written articles/stories etc., they will approach YOU with their needs.

Okay… do you need some ideas for NEXT Christmas?  Check out these:

  • Favorite Christmas books, movies, musicals/plays (pastiche or true likes)
  • Christmas mishaps (humorous, or coping skills)
  • Christmas trees: cutting your own, uniquely decorating (we knew friends who lit live candles on their tree!), a special nostalgia ornament
  • Family traditions (oldies, or how to start your own)
  • How to make homemade gifts (food, ornaments, clothes, home decor)
  • Holiday baking (how-to, tastes & smells, shipping)
  • Holiday traditions from other countries (foods, decorations, activities)
  • Or…. interview someone with over 3,500 Santa Claus decorations (Hint: I can give you her name.)

Take away

After all the gifts are opened, the holiday meal is eaten (and cleaned up), the kids are playing with new toys (or the boxes), and the older “boys” are watching football, go grab a piece of crumpled wrapping paper, smooth it out, flick open that new expensive gold-plated pen, and start writing up your holiday impressions, experiences, and ideas while they are still “dancing in your head.”

Christmas garland

Merry Christmas &  Happy New Year !

 

*Inspiration for this post came from Jewell Johnson’s article, Writing Seasonal Articles in the Christian Communicator, Nov-Dec, 2017.