Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let Me Out of My Box. Please!

Trying to Break Out of the Box
- Sculpture by Peter Kiss

Last week someone left a review of my latest book, Murder In Vein, on Amazon, giving it only one star, and that was because they couldn’t give it zero stars.


Honestly, at first the review bothered me. While authors don’t expect everyone who reads their work to fall in love with it, no author wants to see his or her work disliked that much. Then I read and digested the review. The reviewer, although she called Murder in Vein “[b]loody, nasty, and totally unlikeable,” didn’t dislike the book because of its writing style or character development or even the plot. She hated the book because it wasn’t like my other two series. The reviewer even told Amazon customers: “If vampires aren't your thing, stay away no matter how much you may enjoy the author's other books.”

What it boils down to, Murder In Vein was vilified because it was a vampire book and dark. Because it wasn’t a cozy like my Ghost of Granny Apples books or cozy-ish like the Odelia Grey novels. But then again, the cover and back of the book make that quite clear, so I’m not sure why the reader was surprised by what she found on the page.

Rather than throw stones at the book, I wish the reader had recognized what I was accomplishing with Murder In Vein – I was breaking out of my box.

Breaking out of your comfort zone is difficult in any situation. People love the comfy little boxes they create for themselves. We decorate them with fluffy pillows and cushy rugs and pipe in soothing music. We set up house in our personal emotional places and defy anyone to drag us out. It’s no different in writing.

I’ve never wanted to write just one type of novel. I’ve always dreamed of writing across genres, envisioning my name on mystery novels and general fiction alike, whether they be cozies or hard topics with difficult and unsavory situations. Last month here on Inkspot I wrote about other ideas I have for future books. They run the gamut from fun romantic capers to painful coming of age novels to very dark character studies. I would never tell myself I can’t write those books because they are not like the other books I’ve written.

For example, I love pizza. It’s my favorite food. Calorie and fat content aside, I don’t eat it every night because I would quickly become bored. It’s the same with writing. Creating the same type of book over and over can be boring for a writer. And if the writer is bored with the writing, there could be the danger of that boredom translating onto the page, creating a boring read.

Most publishers build a brand for the author and want everything that writer produces to fall within that nice safe box of reader expectations. After awhile, some writers end up writing the same book year after year after year because that’s what their readers expect and the publisher and author do not want to rock the boat. My publisher, Midnight Ink, didn’t hobble me with such limitations. I wrote the book I wrote and they loved it. Thank you, Midnight Ink. Thank you for letting me break out of my box. And fortunately, most of my readers and the reviewers have loved and accepted Murder In Vein as a “Sue Ann Jaffarian” book.

And talk about timely. This coming Sunday, October 3rd, at 2 pm, I will be on a panel at the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters In Crime discussing writing across genres. My panel mates will be the distinguished Edgar winner Naomi Hirahara and the always entertaining and gusty Christa Faust. You can be sure I’ll be mentioning my one star review as an example of a reader feeling assaulted by change.

Since I started this post with the worst review Murder In Vein has received to date, I’m going to end it with the best, just so I can remember I’m heading in the right direction – straight out of my box.

Like Stuart Kaminsky, Jaffarian juggles her franchises deftly, giving each a unique voice and appeal. Her latest series kickoff may be her best yet, blending supernatural sexy with down-to-earth sassy. – Kirkus

Sue Ann Jaffarian
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Did I hear a collective groan?

I made the mistake today of cataloging all my upcoming deadlines:

1. Projects at work, moveable at rush jobs appear
2. Get supper on the table
3. Continue writing book 2

2-3 Times per Week:
1. Laundry
2. Work out at the gym

1. Grocery shopping

Within the next 4 Weeks:
1. Copyedits for book 1
2. Two birthdays

Within the next 16 Weeks:
1. Christmas
2. Author events (no idea, yet, how many there will be)

This looks way too much like part of my kid’s physics homework: If writer A has X minutes to complete task B, how soon will writer A’s head explode when tasks C, D, F, and G are added at a rate of Y per hour? This is my instinctive reaction to that formula:

Then again, this is where being an anal-retentive type comes in handy. I’m a pretty good hand at multitasking, and I’ve become more efficient at it over the years, when I learned how to take advantage of Found Time. Those are all the little bits of “hold time” while waiting in line, waiting for dinner to finish, waiting at the soccer field.

Like many of us who write and maintain a Day Job and (often) household, if I didn’t monitor my schedule daily, I’d drown. Hooray for phones with a calendar function. And Post-It Notes. Those little sticky pieces of paper have rescued many a plot point from oblivion.

Today’s tasks aren’t done, and there are tomorrow’s to prepare for. And the next chapter. And the laundry… I think I’ll lay down with a cool cloth on my forehead for five minutes. No; wait. That’s not on my schedule. Guess it’s time for this:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Maybe I Should Read More

I sat down to write this great post about the new TV season…and I realized I blogged about the exact same topic last year (on my other blog). But it’s all still applicable. (Now, what does that say about television?)



It's September and that means...the new TV season is upon us.

When I was younger (much younger), I looked forward to the start of every new TV season. I'd read the reviews of the new shows and prepare my viewing strategy (no VCRs or TiVo back in the day). On several occasions, I remember circling the shows in the TV Guide to make sure I wouldn't miss any great entertainment.

Of course, back then, there were only three networks.

Now there are more channels--and more shows--than I could ever watch in my lifetime. Not that I want to; most of the shows don't appeal to me. But there are still enough crime dramas to keep me coming back to the boob tube.

Growing up watching crime dramas (as I did) undoubtedly helped foster my desire to write crime fiction.

Who can forget these gems: 200px-Columbo
Barnaby Jones
The Rockford Files
Cool Million
Hawaii Five-O
McMillan & Wife
Mission Impossible
I-Spy McCloud
Charlie's Angels (hey, there was crime on that show, wasn't there?)
The Six Million Dollar Man
The Bionic Woman 
Hill Street Blues

I could go on. (Of course, my viewing wasn't limited to crime drama--I watched plenty of lawyer and doctor shows, too. And don't forget The White Shadow!)

Here's the thing: Back then, I loved those shows and thought they were great. Now, if I happen to catch an old rerun or two, I realize many of them were actually pretty cheesy.

So what's the explanation? Am I just more mature/more discerning now (i.e., I don't have time to waste watching mediocre shows)? Or are the shows really better written and better acted now?

What shows this year look especially promising?



Monday, September 27, 2010

Hobbies versus Work

The other day, my husband heard a radio announcer say, “Only people who don’t like their jobs have hobbies, or firemen and policemen who only work four days a week.”

Really? What’s your first reaction to that?

My husband builds and races cars as a hobby. He says it’s a stress-reliever, although his race engines require constant attention and occasionally the bodywork needs a full rebuild, which makes it appear stressful to me. He works four days a week, which is why the announcer’s statement grabbed his attention.

As a retiree (a group completely overlooked by the announcer), my mother-in-law collects dolls and belongs to a doll club where they invite guest speakers to share their expertise about items like 18th century French dolls. She enjoys playing with her “dollies,” dressing them in fancy clothes and arranging them in tableaus on her cabinets. It keeps her out of the casinos, which is her other pastime of late.

Another overlooked retiree, my dad, designs, builds and flies model airplanes. He spends hours creating, then sometimes crashes the whole effort on the first flight, curses a bit, and starts over again. Again, it looks stressful and expensive to me but he loves it.

I have always named reading as my hobby, but I have been known to sew, quilt, knit, needlepoint, embroider, stencil, paint, emboss velvet, bead, build dollhouses, and more. Of course, sometimes I write but once you show a profit, the all-knowing IRS doesn’t see writing as a hobby anymore even if I do. Now it’s a job.

This brings us back to the announcer’s statement. Do hobbies satisfy some need in people that their jobs don’t? Do hobbies fill empty hours and give people some sort of feeling of time well spent and/or achievement? Why do people have hobbies? And what constitutes a hobby?

My 1976 American Heritage dictionary defines a hobby as “an occupation, activity or interest, such as stamp-collecting or gardening, engaged in primarily for pleasure; a pastime.”

An activity engaged in for pleasure. A pastime. Oh dear, does that mean going to the casino qualifies as a hobby? With that definition, going to the mall or the movies could qualify, but I’ve always thought of a hobby as something more significant, more tangible, with a positive result like beautiful landscaping or a lovely handmade scarf or a carefully selected collection. Even sports like golf or tennis didn’t quite qualify as a hobby in my mind because supplies can’t be purchased at a hobby store, but this definition would include them—wouldn’t it?

In fact, this definition, minus the examples, is vague enough to include almost everything one enjoys doing. Is that the key? It’s work if it’s not pleasurable and it’s a hobby if it is? Therefore, if you enjoy your work, you don’t need a hobby because it satisfies on all levels?

What do you think? Wait—would reading blogs and responding to the questions asked qualify as a hobby if you enjoy it? Yikes!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Place Was Lousy With Authors (but not a lousy author in the place)

Darrell James

For me, one of the best parts of being an author is that you get to associate with so many other great authors and all the wonderful book loving people of the universe.

Trendy Westwood Village, a block off the UCLA campus, centers itself around The Mystery Bookstore, and, on any given L.A. afternoon, the area becomes something more akin to West World. A fantasyland for writers and readers. Mystery authors descend on the store for launch parties or book signings. Fans of the genre share the restaurants and shops with students and sometimes Hollywood’s celebrities.

This past weekend, Diana James and I headed down for the launch party for Sue Ann Jaffarian’s latest book, Murder In Vein. Diana is the very talented owner of PRme! a firm that provides promotion and publicity to numerous authors, to include Sue Ann (and me). We carried buckets of champagne on ice, and jammed through the street melee to reach the store.

Before we could get there we stumbled across authors Brett Battles and Graham Brown. They were on the patio of Barney’s Beanery having drinks and food following Graham’s earlier signing of his first novel Black Rain. Sue Ann arrived just then. And the chance meeting became something of a mini-reunion, filled with handshakes and hugs, and talk of the latest triumphs and challenges of the book world. It was good to see them. A nice surprise. And gave me a genuinely warm feeling to be (now as a published author) an accepted member of the community of writers.

As we entered the store, friend Jeff Sherratt was there to greet us. Jeff is the author of the Jimmy O’Brien mystery series. His next book, Detour To Murder, will be released next month and coincidentally (or possibly not) Sue Ann and I both appear on the cover with blurbs. It’s always good to see Jeff. He and I have signed in bookstores and have appeared on a number of author library panels together. Lori Wolf, another writer, was also present for the event.

Soon, the bookstore was filled, and the launch party was underway. Bobbie McCue, the ever revered and trusted manager of the store, introduced Sue Ann, and Sue Ann shared a very touching and inspiring history of her work as a writer leading to her latest release. There were vampire rubber-duckies, blood red, “red-velvet” cupcakes, champagne toasts and some really great and interesting questions from the audience.

Afterwards, all of us writers headed up the block to BJs for dinner. The place was alive with students from the campus, young women in their club attire, young guys (just trying to keep up). One of the attendees to Sue Ann’s signing was there with her son and facing a long wait for a table. We asked them to join us. Her name was Janet. She was there on vacation from North Carolina to visit her son, Ron, and had come to the advertised launch as a fan of mystery. Ron, as it turns out, is also a writer living in L.A. He writes for the G4 Cable Network and is currently working on a number of projects. It seems you can’t throw a rock in Westwood without hitting a writer. (But, please, don’t throw rocks at the writers.)

The evening was filled with drinks and laughter and camaraderie, and talk of books and film and storytelling.

My short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and my first novel will debut in September of next year from Midnight. It’s a thrill beyond imagination. But the most fulfilling part of it all is the friendship and good times to be had with so many great people, writers and readers alike. This past weekend will stand-out among my many memories of becoming a writer.

What about you? As a writer or as a fan of the written word, what’s one of your favorite memories of the book world?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Naming Characters

What would you name these two characters? Tom and Harry? No, that's too common, not colorful and memorable enough. How about Darren and Dave? No, those names are too similar and readers might get confused if they were both in the same story. How about Leonardo and Alfred? What does that say about their ethnic background, their personalities?

When an author is creating new characters for a novel or story, picking names for those characters can be a difficult and delicate task.

For one thing, you don't want your readers getting confused about who is who. I use a simple tool to make sure that not too many of my characters have first names that start with "T" or last names that start with "P." For each book I write, I create and maintain a three column chart. The first column contains the 26 letters of the alphabet, the second contains the first names of my characters next to the letter of alphabet they start with, and the third contains the last names of my characters in the same row as their initial letter. I put ALL of the character names in this chart, even the walk-ons. I try to make sure that no more than two first names and two last names are in each letter row, and if possible, that one is a minor character name and one is a major character name or one is female and one is male. Also, I try to make sure they don't start with the same two letters, like Darren and Dave above. Or the last names of Smith and Smothers.

For my significant characters that will have major roles in the story, I work to pick names that match their ethnicity and location, age (Miriam for an older woman and Brittany for a younger one, for example), and personality. For ethnicity and location, I often use a phone book. My Claire Hanover gift basket designer mysteries have been set in Colorado Springs and Breckenridge, Colorado, and I have used phone books from those cities to pick names for my characters who live in them. I won't take a full name verbatim from the phone book, but will mix first and last names from different listings until I get a name that "feels right" for that character. For my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series, which is set in Salida, Colorado, I use a Salida phone book.

For personality matching, I will often look up the meaning of first names, especially, on the various baby naming websites to see if the name fits that character's personality. And people do attach emotional meanings to names. I remember playing the Barbie Queen of the Prom game when I was a girl. Everyone wanted to win a date with dreamy Ken and no one wanted one with creepy Poindexter! So a strong action-oriented male figure may have a short, clipped first name like Dirk, Brad, or Curt, while your computer nerd might be Peter, Ronald, or Chester.

Then there's the added complexity when someone wins a character name in one of my books from a mystery conference charity auction. I may find that after I assign their name to a minor character in one of my books that their first name or last name is too close to another character's name. So, I have to change that other character's name, too. Or, maybe the physical look or personality I've given that minor character doesn't match the auction winner's name. So, I'll change the character's hair color, or add glasses, or even change the ethnicity.

Names are important!

If you're a reader, please tell me your favorite fictional character names and why you like them. And if you're a writer, I'd love to know how you go about picking your character names!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


September marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime fiction and creator of both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as other memorable characters. Dame Agatha penned a total of 80 novels. According to the Guardian, an estimated billion copies of her books have been sold in English and another billion in 103 other languages. She published her first book, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, introducing Hercule Poirot, in 1920 at the age of 30 and her last book, POSTEM OF FATE, in 1973, three years prior to her death. An additional Poirot and Miss Marple, both written 40 years earlier, were published in 1975 and 1976 respectively. Dame Agatha’s play THE MOUSETRAP has been running continuously since it opened at the West End Theatre in London in 1952. Quite a career!

However, as much as I admire Christie as an author, I’m fascinated by an aspect of her life that has kept both professional and amateur sleuths guessing for years. At approximately 9:45pm Friday, December 3, 1926, Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping daughter, then drove off alone in her car. The car was later found abandoned with no sign of Christie. Some believed she’d drowned in a natural spring near the site where her car was found. Others thought the disappearance was a publicity stunt. Some clues pointed in the direction of murder, accusing her unfaithful husband.

Christie was eventually found eleven days after she disappeared, staying at a spa hotel and using an assumed name. Speculation ran the gamut of a head injury from a car accident or that she orchestrated the entire episode to thwart her husband’s plans to spend the weekend with his mistress. In 2006 Andrew Norman, a doctor and Christie biographer, suggested that she was in a fugue state brought about by trauma or depression.

Now here’s the amazing coincidence:

Nearly seven months earlier on May 18, 1926, another celebrity, Aimee Semple McPherson, went for a swim on a California beach and disappeared. McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist, famous for using modern technology to spread her religious message. The Foursquare Gospel Church she founded is a movement with over two million members worldwide.

McPherson was first assumed drowned. Her mother preached the sermon she was supposed to deliver the evening of her disappearance and told congregants, “Sister is with Jesus.” Upton Sinclair wrote a poem to commemorate the tragedy. Parishioners held round-the-clock seaside vigils. Her disappearance sparked a media frenzy.

A month after she disappeared, her mother received a ransom note demanding a half million dollars and was told if she didn’t pay, Aimee would be sold into white slavery. Her mother thought the note was a hoax and threw it out. Shortly thereafter, Aimee stumbled out of the desert into a Mexican town. She claimed she’d been kidnapped, drugged, and tortured. Somehow she managed to escape her captors and walked for half a day through the desert.

However, Aimee’s story was full of holes. Speculation runs high that Aimee ran off with Kenneth Ormiston, her married lover. Witnesses came forth, claiming to have seen Aimee and Ormiston in Carmel, California during the time she was supposedly being held by kidnappers in Mexico. Other theories suggest she’d gone off to have an abortion or plastic surgery, or like Christie months later, had orchestrated the disappearance as a publicity stunt.

Christie and McPherson were born weeks apart in 1890. Their disappearances occurred months apart. Whether one influenced the other is something we’ll never know. Aimee Semple McPherson died in 1944. Agatha Christie died in 1976, their true life mysteries never solved.

If you’d like to read more about Agatha Christie, the Barnes & Noble Mystery Bookclub is celebrating her birthday all this month with posts by various mystery authors. Today I’m discussing how Murder on the Orient Express played a part in my decision to writer mysteries.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


by Kathleen Ernst

I wrote my first novel for adults when I was fifteen. It was not very good, of course, but I knew I’d discovered what I wanted to do.

Twenty years and ten or twelve novels later, I sold a book. It happened to be a young adult novel. One thing led to another in the juvenile/teen world. With the exception of a nonfiction book for adults, all of my published books have been written for young readers.

OWM Until now. Old World Murder: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery will officially be released on October 1. Advance-order copies are already finding their way into readers’ hands.

I love writing for children and teens, and don’t plan to give it up. Still, it’s awfully nice to sit down at the grownup table, thirty-five years after writing that first manuscript! I had a blast writing Old World Murder, am hard at work on book 2 in the series, and have ideas for more bouncing around in my head.

I am enormously grateful to all the readers who make it possible for me to do what I love.

I’ve got a blog tour set up for the month of October. Sure, I hope to spread a little buzz about the book. But I’ll also be giving a book away at each stop—winner’s choice of Old World Murder or something from my backlist. It’s a small way of saying thank you to some of the wonderful people who love mysteries, and take the time to keep in touch online. I hope you’ll drop in. You might get lucky!

I already have.

Blog Tour Schedule

10/2 – Creating Characters Readers Care About – Three Essential Traits
Poe’s Deadly Daughters

10/4 – Recipe For Promotion – Are You Missing An Ingredient?
Visual Arts Junction

10/5 – Writing For Grownups, Writing For Kids
Creatures & Crooks

10/6 – Planting Seeds, Growing a Series
The Cozy Chicks

10/7 – Reenacting For Novelists
Mary E. Trimble’s Blog

10/8 – Handwork
Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers

10/11 – Start Your Mystery With A Bang!
Mystery Writing Is Murder

10/12 – Interview
Beth Groundwater’s Blog

10/13 – Harpers Ferry – People, Past, Place
Repeating History

10/15 – Chloe’s Maple Blueberry Cake
Vintage Cookbooks

10/17 – Ethnic Eating
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

10/19 – Have You Got What It Takes To Write A Mystery?
Heidi Thomas’s Blog

10/20 – Revisiting My Past
Women Only Over Fifty

10/22 – Culture Clash
Thoughts In Progress

10/25 – Chloe & Me – Writing From Real Life
Lori’s Reading Corner

10/26 – Of Prairies and Plots
Walking Nature Home

10/27 – Interview
Patty Jager’s Blog

10/28 – Creating a Cop
Mystery Book News

10/29 – Theme To Be Announced
The LadyKillers

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pyramid on Point Method, by Jess Lourey

Remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe jogs?

That’s how I used to write novels—disorganized, flailing, a little fear and a lotta hope. This has worked for me so far, I guess, but then I got tapped to teach an “After the Idea: How to Write a Novel” class for MWA-U, the Mystery Writers of America’s new writer’s education series. I couldn’t spend an hour telling people how to reinforce the seat of their pants, so I had to hunker down and develop a legitimate method.

And I did.

And it works. It works so well, that I finally understood why I couldn’t get past page 60 of the four mainstream lit novels sitting on my laptop, and I saw how I could give my mysteries the extra layer of of character complexity I’ve always felt they’ve lacked. Check out this graphic representation of my method, which I call the Pyramid on Point method, because it reminds me of a square on its side:


Here’s how it works. First, you write a one-sentence summary of your novel idea. This will come in handy when you’re marketing your manuscript or later, talking about it at conferences, but for now, the purpose is to coalesce your idea. Here’s the one-sentence summary for the November novel I’ll begin writing this winter: “A newly-minted Minnesota PI investigates a suspicious hunting accident, uncovering a brutal small-town secret.” Notice that specifics aren’t important—names, places. You’re just taking an aerial photo.

Next, expand that summary into a paragraph. This should take about an hour. Include the status quo state at the beginning of the novel, what obstacles the protagonist encounters, and how the novel ends. After you’ve got that summary, invite your characters. Get a notebook or open a document on your computer and create a page for every character who’ll appear in the book. Flesh out the basics, like age and appearance, but more importantly, spell out their goals and motivations, the conflicts they encounter and how they’ll grow from them, and their general storyline in this novel. The detail you add here is what will separate your novel from the pack by making it a character-driven story. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your one-sentence or one-paragraph summaries if your characters call on you to do so.

The next step is my favorite: physically sketch your setting(s). If your novel takes place mostly in a single town, draw a street and business layout. If it also spends a lot of time in a specific house or office, draw the floor plan. Also, keep on the lookout for photos online or in magazines that strike a chord with you. Print or cut them out and glue them into a notebook (where you may already have your character bible). When you get writer’s block later, looking at and writing about these photos will push you over the hump. Just don’t spend too much time at this step or you’ll go from writer to scrapbooker.

Next, expand each sentence on your one-paragraph summary to a full page. Include lots of sensory detail, especially smell, touch, and sound. These make your writing cinematic. After this, roughly outline your plot. I don’t believe in detailed outlines, which take the surprise and so the fun out of writing. Simply create a post-it note for each character conflict you’ve come up with (you’ll find these in step 3), with the character name at the top of each post-it, and rearrange these so they happen in a logical order. These conflicts are the nails on which you string your story.

Finally, write the dang novel. This is the thrilling part. You’ve done the difficult work of creating the structure, and it’s time to sit back and take dictation from the Muses. When you get stuck, recharge with your pyramid. Voila! I hope this method brings joy, structure, and depth to your writing like it did to mine. And please, add to my stone soup. What writing tips/method have worked well for you?

p.s. If you’re describing this method to your friends, don’t take the natural step of making an upside-down pyramid shape with your hands. I did this (frequently, and at waist level) during my presentation, and it turns out it means something entirely different in sign language, and it ain’t “pie.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Scratch of Pen on Paper

Cricket McRae


Lately I seem to be reverting more and more to analog behavior. Gone is the sound of Windows loading while coffee brews early in the a.m. Instead, crisp air, birdsong and the sound of pen on paper accompanies my morning caffeine.

The writing callous on my middle finger is in full working order. My addiction to paper, pens and pencils feels not only justified but necessary. Office supply stores aren’t my only bane – just this week I bought two banana paper notebooks at Target. How could I not? Banana paper is treeless, sustainable, and has a slightly rough texture that’s a joy to put pen to. Then there was the thick quad pad from the corner market, because there’s just something about writing on graph paper. Especially really white paper with really blue lines. Perhaps the grid taps into the uber-left brain?

And the Mead recycled notebook from the drug store (also acquired this week) has an olive green cover in textured squares and a thick cardboard back that makes it easy to write in anywhere. As for the Cambridge, burnt-orange composition book with green lines that also made its way into my basket, it’s size and colors evoke a nonfiction project I’m working on.

Each current writing project has a separate notebook. So does each potential project. Something about each notebook usually reminds me of something to do with the project it contains, be it color, shape, light happy design, luscious velvet or purple metallic cover. Inside they are half-filled with random thoughts, clusters of brainstorming, lists, whole scenes, character interviews, bits of dialog, questions to answer, research contacts, ideas to follow up on, and large chunks of free writing.

There could be several reasons for my recent reversion to the old-school methods.

One is that my I-Phone allows me to check – and delete – email from anywhere. Still techie, of course, but much more limited. Now I only respond to email once or twice a day unless something urgent comes up, and even then I can do it from the wee device, albeit in terser than usual language. This has saved me an amazing amount of time as well as the angst that comes from dealing with my crappy Internet connection on an ongoing basis. It also cuts down on online surfing. Now when I come to the computer, it’s to accomplish something in particular. Sometimes that IS surfing, but it’s intentional and usually timed.

Another reason is that I’m trying to pay more attention to the here and now, to the smell of the roses, if you will. Writing by hand gives me the feeling, real or not, of being more connected to my creative process. It’s slower. There is no backspace button. I find myself being more careful about what I’m saying the first time, not in an editorial way, but because I have the time to think more during the actual act of writing. Then when I input the draft into the computer, it’s an instant edit pass.

I’m also simply writing more lately. It’s an autumn thing and happens every year. That means fitting some of that writing in around other activities, sometimes in bits and pieces, ten or even five minutes at a time. I need something even more portable than a laptop.

Neo-Luddite tendencies aside, there’s real satisfaction in the sound and feel of a fountain pen’s nib on the page. Oooh: fountain pen. Doesn’t that sound la-de-da, all tweedy and writerly! Except I use Pilot disposable fountain pens, which aren’t la-de-da at all. I just like how they vibrate slightly against the paper, how the ink lays down in no-nonsense thick lines, the scratching noise they make, and the fact that I can toss them in the garbage when they’re spent. I buy them packs at a time in black, blue, purple and red.

I know lots of people write by hand, especially first draft. Why do you do it? If you’re a tried-and-true keyboard addict, do you ever go to paper when you get stuck, or during outlining or other parts of the writing process?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Being Mama

By Deborah Sharp

I knew I’d crossed a line when I spent two hours in the wedding aisle of a fabric store, examining tulle.

Formerly known to me as ''that floaty stuff ballerinas wear,'' the fabric has assumed an unnatural importance of late. My latest mystery novel is set around a wedding. So, I have immersed myself in all things nuptial.

''Which color do you think Mama would like for her bouquet?'' I asked my husband.

He looked at several spools of orange ribbon I’d bought, from sherbet-shaded to Halloween pumpkin. And then he looked at me. He spoke carefully.

''You do know ‘Mama’ is a fictional character, right?''

''What’s your point?'' I asked.

I think he’s beginning to resent the fact that this pretend wedding for a woman who doesn’t exist is getting more of my attention than our own wedding did, 21 years ago.

My own wedding was simple, a backyard affair. But the Mama character defines over-the-top, complete with a Pomeranian as ring-bearer, Scarlett O'Hara bridesmaid gowns, and a ''Gone With the Wind'' themed wedding. A friend made a suitably tacky, Mama-style veil for me to wear at book signings. It looks like a dropping of fake flowers and tulle that some huge, prehistoric wedding bird plopped on the top of my head.

(You can get a glimpse of The Veil in a clip from a book event that ran during my recent interview on the Today Show. Click here to watch. )

I never made favors for OUR wedding. But for MAMA GETS HITCHED, I stuffed more than a hundred teeny-tiny gift bags, tying and curling the ends of each pastel ribbon. The intent of the bags: To build anticipation last spring among mystery fans at the Malice Domestic conference for the summer launch of HITCHED. I’ve combed bridal books for the perfect punch to serve, and laminated JUST MARRIED signs for book-store podiums.

Another friend, a judge, offered to appear at one of my signings, dressed in his official black robes.

''I’ll perform the wedding for Mama,'' he said eagerly.

''Great, we'll have a bride's side and a groom's side. We'll get a soloist to do Mama's favorite song . . . ''

Suddenly, I realized there could be a little problem with my failure to distinguish between reality and my fictional character. Technically, I’m Mama, since she lives inside my head. Legally, I’m already married. If my husband is miffed about the energy I’m devoting to Mama’s wedding, how will he feel when I come home with her groom?

Alas, I had to turn down the judge’s offer.

Now that I’ve saved myself from bigamy, I’ve got to run. I’m headed to the bakery to pick out Mama’s wedding cake.

How about you? Writers, what crazy thing have you done for your fictional character? Readers, what makes you blur the line between fiction and reality?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The new Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries short story collection with Basset Hound rescue stories, hound essays and...drum roll please...the world famous Basset haiku, actually Bassetku, from Ginny Tata-Phillips.

Also featuring the novella "Planter's Punch" with JA Konrath. See how Duffy and Jack Daniels, get together, right some wrongs and just maybe...well, you'll have to read it. Previously available only on Kindle!

Best Part? 100% of the cash goes to helping Basset rescue!

The covers were auctiouned off and Shelly Nowicki Gordon's hound, Duke graces both the front and the back. The auctioned raise nearly $6,000 for hound rescue.

Available at Basset rescue events and ONLY at ABC Basset Rescue's Slobber Shoppe


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Smasher Goes to the Movies

Keith here.

Don't tell anyone since it hasn't been officially announced yet, but we've sold an option on my Smasher: A Silicon Valley Thriller to a pair of award-winning scriptwriters. I know the chances of seeing it on the screen are about the same as a Wall Street banker turning down her bonus, but like Willy Loman, a man "is got to dream." So humor me, will you, and play along?

Who should play the protoganist Ian Michaels? He's 37 or so, about six feet tall, dark hair. He's a Silicon Valley workaholic and a pretty good runner? Here are some candidates my kids and wife came up with.

Chris O'Donnell? Kind of a pretty boy. I don't think so.

My kids are big fans of the show "Chuck" starring Zachary Levi. But he seems like such a doofus.

Leo DiCaprio? Well, he is a genuine movie star and we'd get funded if he opted in, wouldn't we?

And what incredibly talented actor can take on Rowena Goldberg, 30, top homicide prosecutor and marathoner who's married to the aforementioned Ian? She's about 30, 5' 4", and brunette.

Here's my first pick to play Rowena, but I'm told she's no longer available. Sigh. If only.

Natalie Portman? I could definitely go with her. Like Rowena, she's even Jewish.

This is Jill Flint from another of my kids' favorite shows, "Royal Pains."

Rebecca Hall who played Vicky in Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona" has an American mom and can do a credible American accent.

Finally, there's the scene-stealer part -- Ricky Frankson, Silicon Valley billionaire and fan of Sun Tzu's Art of War. Here's the description from the book:

"All in all, Frankson looked about as good as a man of sixty-one could look. A field of wavy black hair showed nary a gray strand that might betray his age. A deep notch divided his eyebrows, but the forehead above them was unlined and his cheeks were smooth. The girth of his biceps, half-hidden by the sleeves of the T-shirt, substantiated the rumor that his early morning routine included weightlifting in a home gym. Scuttlebutt also had it that he invested tens of millions in biotech companies researching life extension. Maybe he was a beta tester. Or maybe he had a portrait up in his attic that aged in his stead."

If George got the part, I'm pretty sure my wife would accompany me to the premiere.

Who plays driven better than Al Pacino?

Can't wait to hear your candidates. And if any bankable actors want to throw their hats in the ring, just let me know by leaving a comment. I'll pass your name along.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Trying Something New

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         My writing schedule is nothing if not chaotic. With two children that are still on the young side, my day changes course in a split second sometimes.

To get any kind of writing done, I’ve trained myself to write at a moment’s notice. Got ten minutes? I’m writing. Because who knows when the next ten minute slot of time is going to show up?

Still, despite this crazy approach, I’m also a creature of habit. I don’t like writing at night—give me an early morning or afternoon anytime. I won’t edit as I go along. And I don’t outline.

But the “I don’t outline” part of my credo changed this summer when I wrote a proposal for a new series and was asked to give a full synopsis for the book.

A full synopsis? For something I hadn’t written yet? That sure sounded a lot like an outline to me.

I have to admit, y’all, that long synopsis was the dickens to write. Fifteen pages of pure torture. I just don’t ordinarily think that way. I do these little mini-outlines for each day’s work so that I know what my writing plan for the day is. A day ahead is really as far as I go.

Funny thing, though—when I started writing the chapters for the proposal, the writing just flew. I’m a pretty fast writer anyway, but nothing compared to the speed with which the outlined chapters got written.

At least I know I can do a synopsis/outline now. And that there are some benefits to writing one. I’m not totally sold on outlining though… I’m freestyling my current WIP.

But if I run into a problem with that WIP? I think I’ll just outline from that point on. It’s definitely good for working out the snarls in a manuscript.

How about you? Have you ever switched from not outlining to outlining? Or made any other major shakeup to your writing routine? How did it go?

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hard at Work

by G.M. Malliet

They've done it again. Usually, it's Money Magazine with its "Best Places to Whatever" lists that drags me away from where I'm hard at work, checking out Lady Gaga's twitter status rewriting that paragraph on page ninety-five of the WIP, that paragraph where each of several synonyms I've tried doesn't sound right and I end up back where I started with the lame-sounding, lumpy, and somehow totally graceless word, "indulgent." Sometimes writing the word in color and a different font helps: indulgentindulgent. indulgent.

Sometimes not.

Time well spent, as I'm sure you'll agree. Although the time used to insert my author photo into a photo of Oprah was at least good for a laugh.

At some point before I realize it's the entire paragraph that's the problem, I decide I really need to check out the headlines over at Yahoo!, in case I've now missed some crucial world-changing event. And there go the next ten minutes, because I've spotted this headline: The Coolest Small Towns in America.

I would wager there's not a writer or an artist alive who can resist the promise of future happiness hidden behind this link.

Does this explain why regional mysteries are so popular? Although someone once advised me against writing a regional mystery, as it was "too hard to sell," this falls into the same category as telling Louise Penny no one wants to read a book set in Canada. Louise, having wisely ignored this advice, has of course practically had to add a new room onto her house to display the awards for her Canadian mysteries starring Chief Inspector Gamache of the Surete du Quebec.

What exactly is the appeal of the regional? Maybe it lets us, readers and writers, travel somewhere we might only dream of living--and might not actually like if we did live there. The particular lure of the small town for writers is that it might just contain everything we need to get the WIP moving: The promise of seclusion and quiet. Of unobtrusively friendly folk ("How's the book comin' along, Gin?" "Why, jes' fine, Jeb!"). Of gorgeous scenery to provide much-needed inspiration. Reliable repairmen. Clean air, room to breathe. All that.

These "best" articles can function as a sort of Rorschach test for writers. In this particular list, I personally skipped right over Ely, Minnesota (too cold in winter) and Cuero, Texas (too hot in summer). Likewise, any place where I might be expected to cook whatever someone just caught, shot, or trapped for dinner is out. Whale blubber and trail mix constituting any part of my daily caloric intake, also a no.

The place on this list that jumped out at me was Nyack, New York (just the right weather mix), partly because of the tagline applied to it ("Creativity around every corner"). I've driven around the Hudson River Valley, and much of it does live up to the hype. And, with "Creativity around every corner," I bet I could come up with a way better word than "indulgent."

But I have a quibble about one lovely small town missing from the list: Staunton, Virginia. Isolated, but not too--it's got a train station so you can get out of Dodge if you need to. Small-townish, but with an edge, and some very nice shops and restaurants.

Do you have a favorite pick from the Yahoo! list, or your own favorite small town?

p.s. Be sure to read the recent interview with our own Lisa Bork, who sets her "Broken Vows" series in what is undoubtedly her favorite, a fictional small town on the Finger Lakes.

Photo of Medicine Creek, beneath the Wichitas in Medicine Park, Oklahoma, from the Medicine Park Chamber of Commerce.
Photo of Me/Oprah courtesy of
Postcard image of Nyack, NY, from
Photo of Staunton, VA, from

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Seeing Eye Human

by Felicia Donovan


I will admit that one of my biggest fears has always been that of going blind. I expect this stems from progressive vision loss and problems as a child that left me with bottle-thick lenses by the time I was an early teen and the unreasonable fear of not being able to ever read again. It wasn't until years later that I braved Lasik surgery and was lucky enough to discover renewed vision. I was fortunate, but the fear still lingered despite having vision-impaired friends who quite readily raise families, travel frequently, hold down jobs and live quite independently. I marvel at their ability to function in a sighted world so incredibly well.

Little did I know that I would experience vision loss from a very different perspective by becoming a "Seeing Eye Human." Unfortunately, my eight-year old female hound mix, Marka, is quickly losing her sight - almost overnight. Her condition is rare and irreversible. Within just a few short weeks, my dog is nearly blind.

Every day we are met with new challenges as she tries to learn to navigate in her new, sightless world. Fortunately for dogs, their other senses of scent and hearing are so much more acute than ours that they are able to readily compensate for this loss. Many vision-impaired dogs have an excellent quality of life because they simply don't rely on sight as much as humans do.

We are quickly learning to adjust to this new situation with the assistance of much expert advice. I have learned to use verbal commands like "up" and "down" to cue her about stairs. We will scent the furniture as needed to avoid collisions and put bells on the other animals in the house so she knows where they are.

Watching Marka adjust to her new world has reduced some of my own fears. She's happy and otherwise healthy. She's in familiar surroundings. Most of all, she is very much loved and cared for and knows it. And that, more than anything else, will make it all okay. You know, you can learn an awful lot from a dog.

The Mysteries of The Brain

by Julia Buckley
Since fall is approaching, my family must begin talking about whether or not to take a fall trip--some long weekend away which would allow us to march through autumn leaves and find inner peace. (Or just to eat lots of food and argue in a more beautiful atmosphere).

To me, traveling means endless lists, arrangements, decisions--and all for a couple of days of freedom. For example, we have five pets. Four of them (cats and a fish) can stay home and be tended by our nice neighbor--but one (our hyper dog) needs to be boarded so that he doesn't tear apart the house when we're gone. I need to make sure the home pets all have proper food and that the windows are open the right amount and no doors will slam shut and lock them into a room with no food or litter box.

I have other lists, too, that look like this: BOYS' PACKING; NECESSITIES; DIRECTIONS TO HOTEL and BACKPACK SUPPLIES; FINAL CHECKLIST; etc. Why do I make all these lists and agonize over them? Well, for one thing, if I didn't, no one would--I live in a house full of men.

I attended a lecture two years ago about the current research into the brain--primarily the differences in the way males and females learn and process information. Because the structure of the female brain is actually more complex than the structure of the male's, women are able to consider more possibilities in a given situation--hence the lists. Men's brains are streamlined. They make decisions. They say things like, "Here's how it is: period." Women, at least women like me, agonize over decisions forever because they can't always see which option is the best.

Ironically, this is one of the things experts say makes girls and boys of equal intelligence perform differently on multiple-choice tests. Boys will read the options, decide the answer is A, and mark A. Girls will read them, narrow it down to A and C, and then waste time worrying over which is correct.

It's not surprising, then, that women often take control of things like trips or parties, because they'll look aghast at their husbands and say, "But you're not considering this! Or this!" and the husbands will look back with bleak expressions, thinking "Here we go again."

It's biology that does this to us; knowing that, I made my lists of options and then gave them to my male family. "I came up with seven possibilities for our lodging," I said. "They all have different advantages. You decide."

And they will--in about one minute.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Keeping Up Isn't Just For The Joneses Anymore

As a new author, I'm continually inundated with suggestions for getting myself out there. FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, our own InkSpot, this blog, that blog, start your own blog, keep up with multiple yahoo mystery-and-non-mystery brain forms a perfect whirling dervish thinking about it all.

I do have a website, and a FaceBook account which I've been using to periodically put forth new information about my writing. However, I find I often contract a recurring case of "I ran out of time, AGAIN!" and even with the best of intentions, I can't seem to make all these things happen. So, I turn to you, my seasoned Midnight Ink co-authors, and ask how you balance your on-line time? Which venues earn your attention and why? How do you manage accounts with the Big Three (FaceBook, MySpace, and Twitter--oh man, I can hardly stand the thought of "tweeting, twittering, chirping, or quacking!") and all the blogs and yahoo groups to boot? I fear I'll get sucked into the vast social networking wilderness and fall into the ever-after great beyond if I'm not careful.

I'm more than willing to do just about anything to help promo not only my writing, but all of our books. I'll sit in a dunk tank, take a pie in the face, hang out at a promo table at conferences and harrass (OH! I mean talk nicely) to passerbys about our (dead and undead) bodies of work. But for the life of me I haven't been able to conquer that promotional-time-well-spent in the jungles of social networkdom.
So, bring me your poor, your tired--OH, excuse me, wrong mantra! Let me try that again. So, bring my any and all ideas you have about how you juggle your precious time and what works the best for you...heaven knows I'll take all the advice I can get :-)

Jessie Chandler

Friday, September 3, 2010


Don't even think about working this weekend, that's what Labor Day is all about, to give a rest to us laborers who are on duty 24/7 what with the proposals, the revisions, the rewrites and the copy-edits. And don't get me started on the promotion, the book-signings, the coast-to-coast tours, the TV appearances. Not this weekend.
Instead I'll be serving nachos and burgers to the hordes of consumers who come to our mountain community this weekend to buy arts and crafts which then supports our little 3-room schoolhouse, our volunteer fire department and the network of hiking trails we all use.
In between serving the ever-popular chili dogs I plan to read other people's books like book 2 in the Stieg Larsson trilogy and for my book club - THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR.
Tell me I'm not the only one who's not working this weekend, who's not polishing the final chapters of the book that never ends. Hope you all get a break from the daily grind and honor the day - it's a testimonial to our "social and economic (and literary) achievements."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

La La La, De De Da

We've all got one: the phone message we can't delete. It's a small child lisping something adorable, or a spouse saying he or she's sorry, or the guys on the bowling team yelling "Happy Birthday." Today, for your reading enjoyment, I present mine.

Back in May, one month after A House to Die For's publication, my twenty-two year-old-son Matt called from the Bahamas. (He's an engineer on a luxury charter yacht.) Getting my voice mail, Matt left me a message that begins with two lines of a song. Reach back in your music memory to Billy Joel's signature ballad, Piano Man, and you've got the tune.


My mom is a real estate novelist, who never had time to talk to her kids.

Now, the "never had time to talk to her kids" part is so NOT true, but the first part is dead on. Thanks to Midnight Ink, I AM a real estate novelist. Wahoo! My mysteries featuring a kick-ass real estate agent have made my most cherished dream of publishing fiction come true.

Matt's message is saved on my phone in perpetuity, or -- as they say here in Maine -- for-EV-AH. Each time I play it, I get a huge, goofy grin on my face.

We all know that the writer's life isn't easy; sometimes it can be pure drudgery. There are days when the very act of putting words on paper physically hurts. But tossed in here and there are little gems that keep us inspired.

Do you have a quote by your desk that motivates you? Or a message that you can't erase? Tell me, but if I don't respond, it's cause I'm talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy, and probably will be for life.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Voices Are Baaaaaaaack!

Today is the official release date for MURDER IN VEIN, the first book in my 3rd mystery series – a vampire mystery series, no less. The book has been unofficially out for a couple of weeks, but today’s the official – Ta Da! It’s Here! – day.

Sheesh – who’d of thought? Huh?

Recently on Lois Winston’s blog I wrote about being flexible when it comes to changing your original plan for your writing career. Plan A was my Odelia Grey series. Plan B was adding the Ghost of Granny Apples series. Plan C involved the vampires. Flexibility is a good thing. But to what degree?  Just how far can one bend before one breaks?

Maybe the title for this blog should really be “Somebody Stop Me Before I Hurt Myself.”

You see, I’m hearing voices again. Well, truthfully, I never stopped hearing voices. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the type of voices that tell me to go to the roof of a high rise and start picking off people on the street below with a rifle sporting a telescopic sight. I’m not even talking about the voices that tell me that another piece of pie won’t hurt. No. I’m talking about the voices only writers hear. The voices that whisper new and hopefully clever ideas for books and characters.

For the past couple of years I’ve had an idea for another book percolating in my brain. It’s edgier and darker than anything I’ve written yet. I’m not even sure it’s a series. Could be a stand alone. I’m not even sure it’s a mystery. Could be a thriller. Could be a character study about people and their secrets. Lately, this book has been nagging at me. I can see scenes floating in the deep space of my brain like orbital debris. I keep batting it away. I tell it I’ll get back to it later, after I turn in vampire book #2, do the final edits on Odelia book #6 and finish Granny Apples book #3. But I can see it tapping its fictional foot in impatience, arms crossed, clearly in a snit.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I also have whirling around in my head an idea for a fun, romantic caper series, that could also be a mystery series. It’s luring me with laughs and the promise of a good time.

Both of the above ideas have gotten into a shoving match to see which will be deemed Plan D and which Plan E. Off on the sidelines, the vampires are snarling with bared fangs. Granny’s annoyed and threatening to never materialize again. And Odelia … well, I can’t really repeat in polite company what Odelia has to say about the whole matter.

And the thing is, I have two other book ideas that are also waiting in the wings, but with a lot more grace and patience that these other two.

Okay Plans D and E contestants, here’s how it’s going down. If and when I have an open slot in my writing schedule, one of you will have your day at the keyboard. It won't be today. Nor tomorrow. It won't even be during the rest of this calendar year. So cool your jets before my brain freezes and crashes like the old and overtaxed hard drive it is and I’m forced to hit my mental delete button, sending you hurtling into the black hole of forgotten ideas.

And, trust me, no one wants that.

Yesterday, on this very blog, Alice Loweecey discussed the same topic, that of controlling new ideas that threaten our focus on our current work in progress. Alice likened her buds of promising plots to runaway, aromatic herb plants, while I compared mine to psychotic episodes.  Obviously, Alice's ideas are more mannerly and come from the right side of the tracks. But whether your new ideas are members of a gardening club or members of a motorcycle gang, the struggle to keep our attention on the task at hand without squelching fresh creativity is something that plagues us all.

Sue Ann Jaffarian
Follow me on Twitter and Facebook