Opening Lines

Write an opening line for the picture below:

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Edith: Worst fourth of July of my life. Or maybe I should say of HIS life. His former life.

Jessie: While everyone except her lousy brother-in-law was at the parade, Mildred decided to use the time to tidy up around the house. She was delighted to discover the new brand of trash bags she’d bought on sale that week really did hold up to two hundred pounds of garbage.

Barb: It was a tough 4th of July at the Veteran’s Home.

Sherry: The last thing I said to him was, “Don’t use that big knife to open the ketchup.”

Liz: The party unexpectedly ended early. Unfortunately I also left my knife behind.

Readers: Add yours!

Ask the Expert – Glenn Burlamachi, Funeral Director

Liz here, and today I invited one of my oldest pals to join us for “Ask the Expert.” Glenn BGlenn Burlamachi owns and operates the Concord Funeral Home in Concord, Massachusetts, and has worked in the business for many years prior. (Confession: I had a stint working at Glenn’s funeral home! For research, of course.) I’ve always been fascinated by the business, a little because of my love for Six Feet Under but mostly because Glenn used to tell me stories all the time about what it’s like. I thought it would be an interesting topic for the blog, so here were my questions to Glenn:

1. How are violent deaths handled?

Violent deaths are not as common, however each case is different. There are accidents, homicides and suicides, all three can create it’s own violent story.  It is my experience to bring the survivors into the funeral home and process the funeral services as quickly as we can.  The survivors do not want to be there any more than you do.  We are as empathetic as we can be and keep conversation to a minimum.  Usually we do not deal directly with the immediate family but with another family member or close friend who acts as a liaison between the funeral director and family.

Concord 22. What’s the craziest funeral you’ve been part of?

Well, fortunately we have not had any “crazy” funerals.  I am mindful however that each family may have their own beliefs, customs and religious beliefs, this can add a “twist” to some funeral services.  Example…Jewish are buried within 48 hours of death with the exception of Saturday, they are quick and well handled with all parties cooperating and working together.  Unitarians are independent and need minimal assistance by a funeral home.  Greeks are traditionalists regardless of age.  We did have a horse and buggy funeral at the request of the deceased (prior to dying of course)…I could go on and on.

3. Talk about what it’s like behind the scenes of the funeral home?

A funeral home is a business just like any other, we function as efficiently as the leadership and staff allows.  It can be chaotic at  as death has no set schedule.  I have witnessed the funeral home remain quiet for week(s) and have as many as 7 deaths in 2 days.  We need to be prepared and at the ready 24/7, this adds to the stress as the funeral home (neat and organized) and staff (also neat and organized) must be available.  In my history we have had 3 deaths in one day on numerous occasions.  It is also imperative both the exterior and interior of the funeral home are updated and tastefully appointed. Concord Funeral Home

4. What’s it like living in the funeral home?

As mentioned previously we are a 24/7 profession, therefore residing at the funeral home is most often convenient.  However, there are more times than none I find myself unable to shut down and stop.  There is ALWAYS something to do so the disconnect can be most challenging at times.  Also, most funeral homes are located on a main street, this creates a “fish-bowl” atmosphere for the occupied funeral directors.  Some residents will observe (and comment) on your daily routine.

5. What is the worse cliché you have to deal with as a funeral director?

The daily clichés are common, “I’ll be the last one to let you down”, “I bet everyone is dying to get in there?” “how’s business?”  I have learned over the years to politely ignore and remain professional when the clichés are mentioned.

6. Favorite and least favorite part of job?

Favorite: the ability to assist a family in their lowest point in their life. This is both a privilege and honor.
Least favorite: 24/7  this profession is always on your mind.

Concord inside7. Typical day?

Depending on death calls, it can be very busy or very quiet.  When busy there are families to meet, obituaries to compose, scheduling to administer (church, cemetery, military and staffing).  When there are no death calls we find ourselves, cleaning, organizing, community service etc.

8. What happens when you receive a death call?

Most deaths are reported to the funeral home via telephone “call” hence the term “death-call”.  These phone calls occur 24/7, death can occur at home, a hospital, nursing home or public area. In most cases we must respond immediately.  We drive to the designated location and transfer the person with dignity and respect.  We dress and always act professionally, it is our duty and obligation regardless of the surrounding location or community we serve.

9. Writers try to capture feelings in words.  If you could describe the feeling  of your funeral home, how would you do that?

A funeral home is a reflection of its proprietors. The décor should be neutral, “home-like” and have a sense of the community.  The Concord Funeral Home is located in historic Concord, Massachusetts, therefore we have a slight revolutionary theme throughout.  The colors are warm and comforting, the art work is appropriate and the furniture period to the home yet functional. The exterior should have good curb-appeal such as freshly painted, seasonal flowers, manicured lawns etc.  This is the first impression for the general public therefore it must be favorable.

10. What kind of schooling do funeral directors require?

Funeral directors are required to attend and graduate from a two-year associates program.  Upon completion you are required to pass the National Board Exam consisting of 2 sections, Arts and Sciences.  Once this is successfully accomplished a funeral director must pass the state requirements.  Each state has its own guidelines. This consists of an apprenticeship program and both written and practical (embalming) exams.

11. Do funeral directors attend conferences?

Yes, there are many conferences offered throughout the calendar year. Most funeral directors will attend several.  Funeral Directors are required to earn 8 CEU hours each  year and are obtained at these mentioned conferences or online classes.  This profession like all professions change and it is important to keep up with the changes.

Readers: Ask Glenn a question! He’s going to stop in throughout the day as he can, in between funeral tasks.

Wicked Wednesday – What’s got you on the NSA watch list?

It’s Wicked Wednesday, when we all weigh in on a topic. As mystery writers, we often joke about what would happen if people overheard our crazy dinner conversations on top murder methods or saw our frantic Googling sessions to find out the most logical place to hide a body. So today, we’re going to get a little silly and talk about the craziest thing we’ve ever researched. In other words, which search would end with you on some kind of watch list?

Edith: For me it’s got to be poisons. In past books and stories I have killed someone off RosaryPeaswith Datura tea, with liquid nicotine, with cyanide salts, with arsenic, with an unspecified botanical toxin, with Tylenol plus alcohol, and one coming up will use rosary peas. Deadly, deadly stuff, all of it! So if the NSA is tracking my searches, I’m, uh, dead in the water. But if the Poison Lady can stay in operation, I figure I can, too!

Liz: I think probably the weirdest thing I ever Googled was if you could kill someone with a corkscrew. Believe it or not, it has been done before….

Jessie: Disguising the smell of a decomposing body and composting a body probably would be mine.

IMG_4805Barb: For me, it’s probably arson. I have Googled so much about various ways to start fires, what happens when a body burns and arson investigation techniques that I hope no one ever has a reason to go through my search history.

Sherry: So many things to choose from and so little space. It’s probably from visiting so many sites with three letter acronyms — FBI, CIA, NSA, NGA, the list goes on and on. About six months after 9/11 my daughter and I were flying to Disney World with friends, when we went to check in we found out we were on the Do Not Fly list. After an airline employee spent thirty minutes on the phone we were finally allowed to fly — so maybe it started back then.

Readers: Do you think you are being watched? Why?

Welcome Terrie Farley Moran!

By Sherry

crhteeWe are so please to have Terrie Farley Moran with us today. I got to know Terrie last spring when we were both nominated for an Agatha Award in the best first novel category. Congratulations, again to Terrie for her win with Well Read Then Dead! Terrie is giving away a cute Caught Read-Handed (isn’t that a great title) T-shirt to a commenter today. So leave a comment and an email address!

CaughtReadHanded_newcomp.inddHi All. Caught Read-Handed, the second book in the Read ’Em and Eat cozy mystery series was released a few weeks ago and I am having a fine time wandering around the blogosphere visiting friends both old and new. I’m so excited that the Wickeds invited me back to visit them and all their terrific readers. (Thanks Sherry.)

Happy as I am that book two is out in the world, I’m struggling along writing book three of the series. I’d love to say “writing cozy mysteries is great fun” but that would be less than truthful. Writing anything is work. Hard work.

But you take research—that’s where the fun is! I am so pleased that my daughter recommended the gorgeous and tranquil (excluding the occasional cozy murder) Fort Myers Beach as the home of the Read ’Em and Eat Café and Bookstore. As part of my research naturally I read all the books that the café’s book club members read, and it would be silly not to dabble in the book-related food the café serves. (Think Old Man and the Sea Chowder, Green Eggs and Ham or Harper Lee Hush Puppies.) I freely admit there are few things I enjoy more than books and food but I am happily surprised at how much I’ve come to love the study of the flora and fauna of southwest Florida.

FTMyrsBchshellsFor one thing I had no idea the extensive variety of sea shells that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, although I did know that all sea shells start out as the home of mollusks. Did you know that clams, mussels, oysters and scallops live in bivalve shells? That’s what you’d recognize as two sided hinged shells. How about those elegant tulip shells? Did you know they are called gastropods? Say what? Gastropods—it seems that gastropods are univalves and have snails inside with a large foot-like stomach that pushes through a hole in the shell wall to propel the gastropod around.

I still have a lot to learn about shells but one thing I can tell you for sure is that in Fort Myers Beach it is against the law to collect an occupied sea shell. If the mollusk is at home, you must leave the shell alone.

mcgregor_blvd_sb_app_victoria_aveAnd what about those splendid palm trees decorating beaches, streets, parks and lawns—every surface imaginable? I am astounded by the sheer variety of palms, ranging from Dwarf Palms that max out at ten feet high to the more usual palm trees that reach twenty to thirty feet at maturity. For absolute grandeur there is the Florida Royal Palm which reaches a height of one hundred thirty feet and seems to live forever. In fact when Thomas Edison wintered in Fort Myers a hundred years or so ago, he bought and planted a couple of hundred Royal Palms along the roadway now known as MacGregor Boulevard, which led to Fort Myers earning its nickname “City of Palms”.

And of course there are alligators, red-shouldered hawks and large orange sulphur butterflies, not to mention the Florida panther, which lends its name to the state’s ice hockey team. I spent far too much time studying them all. And don’t get me started on the massive assortment of fish. Oh, and flowers, dazzling flowers. Some varieties bloom nearly all year. If you want to know about snakes, you’ll just have to read Caught Read-Handed.
Okay, okay, you’re right. I am having way too much fun, but hey, when was the last time you canoed through the mangrove trees on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River and called it “research”?
A writer’s life is always interesting.

Bio

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Agatha Award winner Terrie Farley Moran is the author of Read ‘Em and Eat cozy mystery series including Well Read, Then Dead and Caught Read-Handed. Her short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. Her stories have been short-listed twice for Best American Mysteries. Terrie’s web address is http://www.terriefarleymoran.com She blogs at http://www.womenofmystery.net and can be found on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/terriefarleymoran

Dog Heros

By Liz, on vacation from the day job this week and loving the freedom!

IMG_8704I knew sooner or later Shaggy would start getting invited to do events, and I would be optional. (No, I’m not jealous at all! I know she’s much cuter.) Anyway, we were delighted when the lovely Kim Mather at the Guilford Smith Memorial Library here in South Windham invited Shaggy to be a reading dog this summer.

Of course, Shaggy jumped at the chance. She loves attention, and especially loves being the star of the show. So last week, she got to go to her very first solo event as the library’s “Dog Hero.”

Shaggy the hero dog.

If we weren’t excited already, being billed as a hero made the event that much better. Shaggy was thrilled with the title, as she’s worked very hard taking classes and has a goal of being an official therapy dog. She’s already visited hospitals, nursing homes and schools and brought smiles to a lot of faces with her sweet personality. And to have the library recognize the important role dogs play in the community is huge.

The craft table while kids waited their turns to read.

The craft table while kids waited their turns to read.

That got us thinking about all the hero dogs out in the world. There are so many of them, from police K-9s, to military dogs, to members of a family who do something extraordinary. We read about them all the time – the pup who alerted its family to a fire and saved everyone, or the dog who rescued a human sister or brother from an attacking animal. We loved the recent story about the dogs who saved each other’s lives when they were spotted in a shelter hugging each other and were promptly rescued. The stories are everywhere.

Green Eggs and Ham

Reading Green Eggs and Ham.

I’ve wanted Shaggy to be a therapy dog for a while, but never more than after the Newtown tragedy. The dogs who helped the community heal are true heroes, and they brought a level of comfort that sometimes can’t be reached even with a human counselor or therapist. Seeing the smiles Shaggy can bring to people’s faces just entering a room makes me feel good – and I know it makes her happy. She’s bringing good to the world just by being here.

So kudos to my local library for recognizing dog heroes like Shaggy. And hats off to all of you dog heroes out there. Keep up the good work.

Readers, do you have a dog hero in your life?

Welcome Cheryl Hollon!

Liz here, and I’m so happy to welcome one of my very first friends in the writing community – Cheryl Hollon, whose fabulous debut is coming out in September! I’ve known Cheryl Hollon Cheryl since we were eager beginners, looking anxiously ahead to the days when we would join the ranks of published authors. I particularly remember one pitch practice  session out by the pool at Sleuthfest, where Cheryl relentlessly had me revising and re-delivering my pitch. (Thank goodness I ultimately didn’t have to sell books from a pitch session!) But I was grateful to have such a helpful, patient, and wise friend. And now I get to help her celebrate her first novel milestone, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Here’s a summary of Pane and Suffering:

To solve her father’s murder and save the family-owned glass shop, Savannah Webb must shatter a killer’s carefully constructed façade. . .

After Savannah’s father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, she drops everything to return home to St. Petersburg, Florida, to settle his affairs–including the fate of the beloved, family-owned glass shop. Savannah intends to hand over ownership to her father’s trusted assistant and fellow glass expert, Hugh Trevor, but soon discovers the master craftsman also dead of an apparent heart attack.

As if the coincidence of the two deaths wasn’t suspicious enough, Savannah discovers a note her father left for her in his shop, warning her that she is in danger. With the local police unconvinced, it’s up to Savannah to piece together the encoded clues left behind by her father. And when her father’s apprentice is accused of the murders, Savannah is more desperate than ever to crack the case before the killer seizes a window of opportunity to cut her out of the picture. . .

Pane and Suffering

Take it away, Cheryl!

This has been a year of firsts for me as a debut mystery author. The first contract – first advance payment – first cover – first conference panel – and now my first blog! I am honored that I’m here today on Wicked Cozy Writers.

Liz Mugavero and I met at my first New England Crime Bake. We had become friends after participating in a manuscript swap organized by the Guppies Chapter (Great Unpublished) of Sisters in Crime. That first time your manuscript goes out into the world without your caring fingers in control is a scary occasion. I was in the best of hands with Liz. She was encouraging and supportive in her guiding remarks that improved that oh-such-a-beginner’s manuscript. After I learned a mountain of lessons, I put it away to work on the next mystery. This one caught the eye of my literary agency and eventually captured the attention of my agent.

Writing for a traditional publisher is an interesting mix of both solitary and collaborative efforts. The number of people who are working on bringing my first book to life is staggering. I met my wonderful editor, Mercedes Fernandez, who was kind enough to give me a tour of the offices of Kensington Publishing. What a treat!

One delight to share is how other authors have been wildly generous with their time and support. In fact, on the back of the paperback are quotations from Liz Mugavero and Sheila Connolly. It thrills me to my toes every time I see their names.

Although I’ve survived thus far, the ultimate firsts are yet to come. I’m anxious to experience my first review – first release day – first launch party – and finally the first book signing at my local independent, Haslam’s Book Store, located in the Grand Central District of St. Petersburg, FL, down the street from my fictional Webb’s Glass Shop.

Readers, what’s your best first? Leave a comment below!

Pane and Suffering releases Sept. 29th. You can find out more about Cheryl and her books at

http://www.cherylhollon.com
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cheryl-Hollon-Writer/357992230995844
http://www.twitter.com/cherylhollon

 

How I Learned to Relax About Being a “Cozy” Author and Just Write the Damn Books–Part III

Barb here, sitting on her front porch in Maine and writing on an flawless summer day

Back in February, I started a series of posts about how I came to terms with being a cozy writer. The first one talked about why this designation was an issue for me in the first place. The second, in March, was about how I came to be comfortable as a person with an identity as a cozy author.

Then life intervened. In April-May-June I was hit successively with Crime Bake website deadline-knee crisis-book deadline. But, though as a person I have many, many flaws, I am, at the end of the day (and usually literally at the end of the day), a completer. So herewith is Part III.

So when we left our intrepid heroine, she was happy to be writing a cozy series and comfortable adopting the image of a cozy author. Only one small issue remained.

Yes, I am going to say it.

Cozy mysteries often get no respect.

(She said it!)

There are a few reasons for this.

One is, there’s a bit of a hierarchy in fiction writing, and it looks something like this.

  • The literary fiction writers look down on the mystery writers
  • The mystery writers look down on the romance writers
  • The romance writers look down on the poets
  • The poets look down on the literary fiction writers
  • (cycle starts again)

Of course this is a weird, crazy exaggeration, but you know it’s there, right? And if I were more clever, I could probably fit lots more genres–horror, fantasy, YA, westerns, etc.–into the hierarchy. I remember vividly being at the Key West Literary Seminar and hearing just about every top name in the crime fiction world asked some version of the question, “So did you ever want to write a real book?” (My imperfect memory is that only Benjamin Black–who as John Banville is a renowned literary writer–and Joyce Carol Oates escaped this question.)

So there’s that.

There’s also a weird hierarchy within the crime fiction realm. It’s not as clear, but for sure “literary” crime fiction is at the top, followed by thrillers, traditional mysteries, noir, procedurals and suspense (in some order or another), with romantic suspense and finally cozies at the bottom.

So the question for me was not, can a mystery be good literature? [As pondered by so many, like Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, January 20, 1945), Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) or even Dorothy L. Sayers in her Introduction to the 1928-1929 Omnibus of Crime.] That’s another discussion for another day.

The question was, can a cozy be good crime fiction?

Was it a reasonable question? I think it was. After all, a cozy has never won an Edgar® Award for Best Novel and most cozy writers believe one never will. So why would I want to work this hard at something a whole lot of people–to be clear, people whom I like and respect as writers–think can never be “good?”

Let’s take this apart. To do so, first we have to agree on what a cozy is. The most common definition I’ve seen is that a cozy is a mystery, usually, but not always, featuring an amateur sleuth. The cozy will offer a crime, usually a murder, and a solution, usually the identification of the guilty party and bringing of that guilty party to justice. The reader will meet the guilty party and all the suspects in the course of the book. The mystery will be anchored in a community, and the sleuth, suspects and guilty party will be a part of the community in some way -ie not just there to murder or to uncover a murderer.

Aside from the amateur sleuth bias, and perhaps a bit more emphasis on setting, I’ve just defined a traditional mystery. And no one would argue that a traditional mystery can’t be “good” or even “literary.” (Okay, a lot of people would argue that, including the aforementioned Wilson, Chandler and Sayres, but again, this is not about that. The point is, there’s no reason within our genre, cozy mysteries can’t be good.)

To that definition, many people append, “In a cozy mystery, cursing is kept to a minimum and most sex and gore are kept ‘off the page.'”

I personally chafe at this definition. But not because I have the slightest interest in writing something very gory or explicitly sexual. I don’t wander to my desk in the morning thinking, “Drat! Another day of not torturing children. I feel so restricted.” Because, believe me, I don’t. I just hate it that my subgenre is defined by so many people by what’s NOT in it. If what were important is what’s not in it, I could hand 350 blank pages in to my publisher and be done with it.

Is that final restriction why cozy mysteries can’t be “good?”

After all, if cozy authors deal with murder at such a remove that we can’t describe the horror or the sorrow, and can’t evince those emotions in our audience, then can we really be writing something “good?” I would argue we can, because I have seen many cozy authors very skillfully evoke the horror of unexpected, violent death by focusing on the reactions and emotions of the characters, rather than the blood and the guts. If anything, I think that’s harder and requires more skill.

So that’s not a reason a cozy mystery can’t be “good.”

Is it that cozies can’t be good because there is too much formula required? I don’t think so. Most crime fiction has to contend on some level with audience expectations as to form. As does most prose fiction. As did Shakespeare in his comedies, histories, tragedies and sonnets.

Nope, audience expectations don’t mean cozies can’t be good.

Slide12Is it that cozies usually deal with the small and domestic? Can a book that ignores the vast sweep of history or the maelstrom of current events or the conundrum of the human condition be “good?”

Well, first of all, most cozies don’t ignore those things. Almost all take place in a certain place at a certain time. While they might look at human issues from the inside out, or from specific to the general, instead of the other way around, that doesn’t mean they ignore them.

But also, lots of people have written lots of great, great literary fiction about the domestic realm. In fact, making big events real by showing the way they affect specific people is one of the hallmarks of great fiction writing.

So that’s not the reason cozies can’t be good.

So now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Both of the subgenres at the bottom of the “respect” heap in crime fiction-romantic suspense and cozies– are primarily written by women for women. Is that why cozies can’t be good?

That is, of course, ridiculous. Or I wish it were.

For me, the best books transport me. They take me to a place outside of myself. When that happens, my problems, petty and serious, recede for a time, and the lives of others, the lives of characters, become primary. I learn about professions, human communities and places I can’t learn about from my friends. And I care what happens to the characters.

This is what I think of as the four Es of reading fiction–escape, entertainment, education and empathy.

You don’t need all four in every book, but you probably need three for a book to be satisfying. Or I do. I also need a level of complexity of prose, structure, plot and character  to engage me. I can’t be transported if any of those elements are so simply rendered that I can still mentally balance my check book while reading.

That’s my definition of a good book. Is there anything in my personal definition of a good book that says cozies can’t be good? Nope, not seeing it.

So that’s how I got comfortable with spending my time, blood, sweat, and tears writing cozies. And that’s why I say it loud and proud whenever people ask me what I write. Because there is no reason on earth someone can’t write a cozy that is also a good book.

John T. Irwin described literary mysteries as ones you can re-read and get something new out of each time, even though you know the solution. Do you think that could ever happen with a cozy?

I know I haven’t achieved it, but the fact that it is “out there” means there is something to aspire to.

Readers, have at it. Do you think cozies can be “good” books? Why can’t they get any respect? Does it matter? Does it matter to you?