Essentials

Jessie: Truly enjoying the second day of school!

In  few weeks time my husband and I will be heading to China for a vacation. He’s been practicing away on Rosetta Stone Mandarin and racking up inspiring documentaries on our Netflix queue.

I’ve been thinking about what to pack.Whenever we travel I feel compelled to take as little as possible. I don’t like feeling weighed down by extras. My height makes overhead compartments a trial even with the lightest of carryon cases. So I’ve been looking at my wardrobe and some online suggestions and am aiming at fitting everything I actually need into a single carryon bag. Experts say it can easily be done with proper planning.

Which brings me to writing. Crafting a novel is a lot like going on a journey to a new and unfamiliar place. It is tempting to overpack with too much description, too many navel-gazing moments by the protagonist. Do you need to give the main character an umbrella just because it’s raining? Do you need a mustache on that villain?  Does light need to glint off every surface? How much is too much and how much is just right?

When you are working with a traditional publisher you sign a contract for a book that has an expected range for the word count. It works a lot like a weight limit on suitcases. Just like the traveler who keeps pulling things back out of the bag every time the luggage scale reads over 50 pounds, writers trim words and look for verbs that work hardest. We crunch and roll and squeeze as much into the space as possible hoping our readers will enjoy their journey with us.

Writers, do you treat your work like a carryon bag? Readers, do you have any packing tips for me?

A Christmas Novella

Hi. Barb here. It’s August and it’s hot and humid for Maine and I am sitting on the porch thinking about Christmas.

So, I haven’t exactly announced this anywhere yet, though I haven’t been quiet about it, either, so let this serve as the “official” announcement. I am writing a holiday novella about Julia Snowden and Busman’s Harbor for Kensington for fall of 2016. (I don’t have the exact release date, but it seems to me Kensington’s holiday books usually come out in October.)

foggedinncoverKensington has done a series of these books, packaging novellas by Joanne Fluke, Laura Levine and Leslie Meier. I had read them and really enjoyed them. The truth of the matter was, I desperately wanted to be in one. So when I sent my proposal for books four through six to Kensington, I set the fourth (Fogged Inn) the week after Thanksgiving and the fifth (Iced Under) in mid-February, neatly side-stepping the holidays. I confided my desire to some of the Wickeds during our retreat in 2014, but I never mentioned it to my editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio, or my agent, John Talbot. In other words, I never said anything to anyone who could actually do anything about it.

So imagine my surprise when I got a call from John Talbot in January of this year telling me I’d been offered the chance to write this novella. Even he was surprised. “Sort of out of the blue…” he said. Hey, universe. Thanks!

gingerbreadcookiemurderThis novella will include stories by Leslie Meier, who writes the Lucy Stone Mysteries which are set in Tinker’s Cove, Maine and by Lee Hollis, who writes the Hayley Powell Food and Cocktails Mysteries set in Bar Harbor, Maine. I’ve known Leslie for a number of years through Sisters in Crime New England and she’s someone I really admire. I also like Lee Hollis’ books (actually, the brother-sister writing team of Rick Copp and Holly Copp Simason). So I am psyched!

The theme is Maine, obviously, but also eggnog. And I just happen to have been savoring, for years (you’ll excuse the pun) a killer eggnog anecdote. So, again, kismet.

candycanemurderHow is writing a novella? The truth is, I am bursting with over-confidence. My short stories are always too long, and my novels are always to short, so I’m hoping the novella (defined by Kensington as 20,000 to 30,000 words) is my “natural length.” I have the whole story in my head (unusual for me). I also have the tone, which I’m hoping will be a little more lighthearted and funnier than the Clambake series as a whole, but still very much a part of it. I just have to, you know, write it. It’s due January 15, which would be highly doable, except that Iced Under, the next book in the Maine Clambake series, is due March 1. Ulp.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, I am thrilled to have the opportunity!

What about you, readers? Do you like these collections? Just the right length to sample a new author, or too short to satisfy?

Wicked Wednesday – Writers’ Bad Habits

It’s Wicked Wednesday, when we all weigh in on a topic.

Liz here. So earlier this month I was at Porter Square Books in Cambridge with Edith and Barb. We had jokingly promised to tell the audience some of our bad habits, but we never, ahem, got to answer that question! We’re making up for it here on the blog. So Wickeds – what’s your worst habit as a writer? Any other bad habits are fair game too, of course.

Jessie: I have a terrible habit of writing two books at the same time. I don’t mean I have started out to write two books. I mean I get them entangled thinking I am writing one and then later realize I’ve got two separate ones that need prying apart. It even happens when I have outlined the whole book. The bad news is that it’s a lot of work getting that all sorted. The great news is that I don’t usually start a new book with a blank page. Sometimes I start with a third of it written.AgathaPoisons

Edith: That sounds like a great habit, Jessie! One of my bad habits is bookmarking an article, book, or blog post I’m interested in reading but never getting around to actually looking at it. I guess it’s a good habit that I don’t want to interrupt the flow of my work to go read it now, but that often means I never end up reading about the poisons Agatha Christie used in her stories, the best way to promote a book, or another author’s tried-and-true revision process. So much information, so little time…

Liz: Aside from procrastination? Hmm….let me think about it and get back to you…

Barb: Oh, gosh. Too many to mention. One is going to the internet to look up the definition of a single word, or check a tiny fact, falling into the web, and emerging two hours later, bleary-eyed and wondering where the time went.

Julie: How bad is it that I have all of these? Add to them that I eat junk food while writing. I have tried, I promise, to eat carrots and drink unsweetened iced tea. But there’s something about Fritoes and depends-on-the-time-of-day-after-five-Malbec that get my juices flowing.

Sherry: Procrastination is at the top of my list. Letting my desk get messy which makes me feel crowded and distracted is probably number two.

Readers, any bad habits you’d like to share?

The Chicken or the Egg – Laura Bradford

NEWS FLASH: Gail Hess is the winner of Nancy Herriman’s book! Gail, please contact Edith at edithmaxwellauthor at gmail dot com.

Liz here, and I’m excited to welcome Laura Bradford, the author of the Amish Mysteries,amishme as well as the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries written as Elizabeth Lynn Casey. I met Laura at Bouchercon in 2013. It was my first “official” panel at a real conference, and I was a nervous wreck. Sitting next to me as we waited to start, she confessed she was too – which made me feel a whole lot better! (And sorry to give that away, Laura!)

Laura’s upcoming book in the Amish series is A Churn for the Worse, publishing in March 2016. Today she’s joining us talk about why she writes. Take it away, Laura!

As my deadline for this post loomed closer, I found myself in need of a little spark. So I took to one of my author pages on Facebook to find out the kinds of things readers like to know about their favorite authors. The suggestions were great—where do my ideas come from, what jobs did I hold before delving into fiction, et cetera. But one question shoved its way past all the others to niggle at my thoughts off and on throughout the weekend.

Why do you write?

When I first read that question, my brain immediately shifted into standard answer mode.

“I fell in love with writing when I was ten.”

But that doesn’t really answer the question of why, does it?

So then I started thinking a little more…

Out of my grandparents’ eleven children, five of us are in a highly creative field. Maybe I write because it’s in my genes. That would certainly explain the very odd phenomenon that has me racing back through many a manuscript to add something “really cool” only to find out it was there all along.

Maybe I write because that’s the way my brain is wired.

Or maybe I write because I need to write…

A CHURN FOR THE WORSEfinalfb

When I was little and writing picture books for fun, I truly believed the world was this great big happy place where all you had to do was wish for something and it happened.  And even if on some level I knew that wasn’t true, I made it so in my stories.

My teen years brought with them the same things everyone else’s teen years bring—worry about how you fit and where you fit. Suddenly the gnomes and bears I’d written about as a kid were pushed to the side in favor of angst-y teenage girls worried about their clothes or the boy they’d passed in the hallway on the way to class.

Graduation from college brought journalism jobs and an up close and personal look at reality. Suddenly, the fictional worlds I’d created to reflect my needs paled against one where kids went missing, accidents claimed lives, and criminals got away. Those stories I couldn’t control. I couldn’t write the “characters” the way I wanted or deliver the desired ending to a heartbreaking tale.

As interesting as that work was at times, I was more than happy to cast it aside for the role I wanted most—mom. By the grace of God, I was blessed with two beautiful girls. I threw myself into their world and, by doing so, their happy place became my happy place. Sure, the desire for stories was still there, but I filled it by reading stories to them. You know, losing myself in tales of happy places where all you had to do was wish…

Eventually, my need to write resurfaced and I found myself dabbling in the kind of realities I’d written about as a reporter. Only this time, when a kid went missing, I could make a parents’ desperate wish come true.

Later, when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and my first marriage crumbled, I found myself writing love stories. I guess I needed to make things work out right somewhere, even if it wasn’t in my own life.

Writing does that for me. It gives me a place to make sense of the world—to right wrongs, to work through the tough patches, to find happy endings.

The only question now, is which came first…

Laura Bradford is the national bestselling author of the Amish Mysteries. A CHURN FOR THE WORSE, the 5th book in the series, will release in March. As Elizabeth Lynn Casey, she also pens the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries. NEEDLE AND DREAD, the 11th book in that series, will release in April. Both books are now available for pre-order. To learn more about Laura or her books, visit her website: www.laurabradford.com

Readers, thanks for stopping by! Leave a comment for Laura below.

Feral cats need friends, too

By Liz, trying with all my might to hang onto summer. 

TuffyIt’s August, which is Tuffy’s month to promote his story in Rescued: The Story of 12 Cats Through Their Eyes, in order to benefit his rescue of choice, the Friends of Feral Cheshire Cats (FFCC). So he wanted me to do a PSA of sorts about feral cats, in honor of his friend Lion, the feral he used to hang out with in his prior, outdoor life.

Lion the feral cat

Lion hangs out on the roof of the shed back in the day.

Feral cats are often vilified by people who don’t understand their plight. While these cats are not socialized, they can still live happy, healthy lives outside. Many of them will even show their thanks to their feeders by coming close enough to pet every now and then.

Shaggy rocking her feral cat ears - note the ear tip!

Shaggy rocking her feral cat ears – note the ear tip!

Organizations like FFCC help by working with the community to humanely trap ferals, get them spayed or neutered and properly vaccinated, and arrange for an ongoing management plan to make sure they have food. Many of these groups also help by taking any feral kittens born outside and placing them in foster homes, where they can be socialized and placed in a home.

These groups are working with limited volunteers and resources, so they depend on the community to take ownership of colonies as they are able. If people pitch in, help trap and transport the cats to the vet and provide food, these colonies are managed well and the population doesn’t continue to expand.

Lori Ratchelous and Kerry Bartoletti of FFCC with me and Shaggy.

Lori Ratchelous and Kerry Bartoletti of FFCC with me and Shaggy.

National Feral Cat Day, an annual awareness day sponsored by Alley Cat Allies, is happening Oct. 16 this year. People are encouraged to do something special for the ferals and register as an event. By doing so, they help the cats, help educate their communities and get some cool gear in the process.

Kim as a feral cat, MCing the event

Kim as a feral cat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did an event with FFCC earlier this month in support of Rescued that was registered with National Feral Cat Day. We had a lot of fun talking to the community about what they can do to help, connecting with other feral cat supporters, and celebrating felines everywhere.

To find out more about feral cats, check out Alley Cat Allies. If you have a colony in your area that you’d like to help support, check out their page to find local resources that can help. And if you just want to help a local rescue, do that too. Tuffy and the ferals say thanks!

Readers, do any of you help with feral colonies?

Carolyn Mulford – Going to the Dog

Hi! Liz here, and today I’m welcoming the lovely Carolyn Mulford to the blog. Carolyn is another writer I’ve known from the beginning of my time in the mystery community, and I’m delighted to see this fabulous series getting such great attention. (You can read the first chapter of each of the books on her website.)Today she’s talking about one of my favorite topics: Dogs in books. Carolyn, take it away!

Carolyn MulfordI’m a planner. When I wrote Show Me the Murder (Five Star, 2013), I spent a lot of time developing three contrasting major characters: Phoenix, a wounded former CIA operative who returns to her Missouri hometown; Annalynn, a civic leader whose husband just died in a sleazy motel; and Connie, a struggling singer/music teacher.

I didn’t plan a fourth character, a Belgian Malinois called Achilles. He arrived on my screen as a plot point, the only witness to a crime. Phoenix finds him shot, starved, and tied to a tree. She identifies with him, saying, “Some of us don’t die so easily.” By the end of the book, she is his human for the series.

9780373269495_DIR SMTM coverAchilles poses some challenges to me as a writer. One is revealing his personality when he can’t talk and comes with no bio except being a DEA K-9 dropout. No big deal. He can’t tell, but he can show. For example, when Phoenix leaves him alone, he howls until she comes back. When she takes him into the backyard, he protects the hummingbirds from cats skulking at the feeders. When he meets Connie, he offers a paw for her to shake.

In each book, he—like the other characters—reveals more of himself. In Show Me the Deadly Deer (Five Star, 2013), he refuses to get out of the car when rambunctious four-year-old twins want to play with him. Later, when the children face a tragedy, he allows them to maul him with affection. In Show Me the Gold (Five Star, 2014), he barks a reproof when Phoenix raises her voice to Annalynn. Show Me the Gold

A persistent challenge is giving Achilles bits of action so readers knew what he’s doing. Is he sticking by Phoenix’s side, sniffing around, standing by the car to tell her he wants to go home?

Having Achilles as a major character also offers some unanticipated advantages. He exposes the softer side of the tough, cynical Phoenix. His nose and intelligence contribute to every investigation. In Show Me the Deadly Deer, he indicates that the murder didn’t take place where Phoenix found the body. In Show Me the Gold, he warns her of a booby trap. She soon learns to use him to disarm innocents, terrify bad guys, and back her up.

He also delights readers. At every book signing, someone says, “I love your dog.”

So do I.

Carolyn Mulford worked as the editor of national and international magazines and a freelancer before writing the award-winning Show Me mystery series. Harlequin Worldwide Mystery released a paperback edition of the first, Show Me the Murder, in June. Five Star will issue the fourth, Show Me the Ashes, in hardcover in December.

Carolyn, I can definitely relate to the dog-taking-over-as-a-character syndrome! Readers, what about you? Fave dogs or cats that make a series even better?

Agatha Assumptions Upended

Many of you know that I am an unabashed Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her books when I was fourteen, the summer my family moved from Massachusetts to Maryland. It was a miserable time for me, but I got lost in the world of Miss Marple, and stayed there all summer. Hercule Poirot and I met a little later. Still later I read her short stories, and her stand alones. And, of course, Tommy and Tuppence.

Agatha Christie writingThe picture on the right is how most of us know her–older, writerly, sitting at a desk. She was very shy, and did not love the public eye. This past Sunday I read an article about a new exhibition of photos of her. They upend the expectations that have been cultivated. She wasn’t always an old woman. We know that, of course, but evidence is always good to have. More importantly, as importantly, she lived a life. She surfed, she traveled, she had her heart broken by her first husband, met her second husband and followed him on his archaeological adventures. I love this photographic evidence. What great adventures!

Agatha Christie’s work continues to impact my life. When I went to the Harvard Extension School, and was working on my thesis topic, I decided to write about her, and herAgatha Christie surfing use of point of view. I focused on the novels sheac 22 wrote from 1920, when she started to write, to 1940. Though she wrote some fine novels after that period, those twenty years included And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I dream of writing a book to equal any one of these three. She wrote 75 other novels as well as over 100 short stories, and 19 plays.

As a writer, her craft provides a lot of lessons. Her characters were broad, and played into stereotypes of her age. That said, the way she draws her characters allows readers to identify with them easily, even today. Her plots are clever, and play a good game with the reader. Her narrative style, including use of point of view, is expert.

Last year I wrote a post about the “Lessons from Dame Agatha”. A year later, close to her 125th birthday (next month!) I can still learn more about her, and be surprised by her life. She continues to inspire me.

Maybe I should try and surf?