Influences

By Sherry Harris

IMG_3578As I was trying to think of a topic to write about my eyes landed on two books in our family room The Riverside Shakespeare and British Literature Volume B — not that I think my writing is anywhere close  or influential as Shakespeare, Keats or Barrett-Browning. Both books are from my college days but I still pull them out to read. It made me reflect on other influences that have shaped my reading and writing life.

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It started with fairy tales and went on through the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. I devoted a whole blog post to my favorite childhood author, Maud Hart Lovelace. When I was young I wanted to be Pippi Longstockings — strong, brave and adventurous — and maybe a dose of Pippi creeps into my protagonist Sarah Winston.

 

IMG_3585I was lucky to grow up in a houseful of readers and books. Our bookshelves were full of everything from the classics to current literature. Also I had wonderful teachers like my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kibby, who noticed I was falling behind in my reading skills and worked with me and my family. I think she instilled my deep love of reading. My senior year of high school I was editor-in-chief of my high school yearbook and wrote a lot of the copy. Mr. Stedwell, the young journalism teacher, was patient and managed us, but he didn’t micro-manage us. I probably learned more through that experience than almost any other in high school.

IMG_3671In college I took as many lit classes as I could — thirty hours — a lot considering the college I attended didn’t have a literature major. But I loved every minute of them. A whole class on Mark Twain — the first time I read Tom Sawyer was when we were visiting family friends in Hannibal, Missouri. We visited the fence, island, and cave Twain wrote about. I did an independent study on women authors — Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton and so many more. And of course my class on Shakespeare — one of my proudest college moments was getting an A on my paper about Queen Gertrude.

My outside reading consisted of Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart among others. Then I discovered Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, and Sara Paretsky. I’ve been lucky enough to meet all three of them. I know reading them has influenced my writing and reaffirmed my love for mysteries.

Readers: who are your writing and reading influences?

What Is Your Story?

By Julie, still chilly in Somerville

My day job is running an arts service organization called StageSource. StageSource is 30 years old, and connects the theater community in New England in dozens of ways. It is a very, very challenging job, but incredibly rewarding.

Every two years we host a conference. This year it will be June 7 at the Boston Opera House, and the theme is “Who Are We? How Do We Tell Our Stories Differently?” Thirty years in, it is time for all of us to take stock,and think about our theater community, and how we want to present ourselves. (If you live in New England, like or love theater, or are an arts administrator, come to the conference. It is going to be great.)

As complicated as this is for the theater community, it is as complicated for mystery writers. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. We are already a genre, and within that, we create other subgenres, like “cozy”. Some things are out of your control–like how your book gets tagged for data collection, or where it is sold in a store. How you claim that space, and tell that story, is an individual choice though. Do you fight it, or embrace it?

When I started out on this writing journey, I fancied myself a “serious” writer, even though I read widely in the mystery genre. It wasn’t until someone asked me why I wasn’t writing mysteries, and I didn’t have a good answer, that I changed paths. Even then, in literary fiction classes, it was a risky move. But when I dropped a body, my story got better. When I added a mystery component, characters had something to talk about. And when I embraced being a mystery writer, I fell in love with writing.

My cover! I don’t think I’ve shared it yet–isn’t it great?

Earlier this month I went to Malice, and was invited to the Berkley/Obsidian dinner. Sitting in that restaurant were some of my favorite authors, but I felt at home. We each had to get up and introduce ourselves, so I told them that I was Julianne Holmes, and my debut book, Just Killing Time, was coming out in October. Everyone clapped. For me.

How cool is that? Here’s the best part of the story when you are a mystery writer: other mystery writers are wonderful people. It is a great, supportive, and fun community.

I love that being a writer has become an integral part of my story. It isn’t my entire story. I am also an arts administrator, an arts advocate, and a teacher. But I have come to own the writer part of my story, and I realize it sure makes the whole package a lot more fun.

Writer friends, where does your work fit into your story? Readers, does your love of mystery fiction add to your own story?

Wicked Wednesday: Taking It Outdoors

Wicked Wednesdays we all weigh in on a topic, and then ask our readers to chime in as well. Last week we talked about spring cleaning. This week’s question, given that Memorial Day is coming up, and many a grill will be hauled out from winter storage, what is your favorite “it isn’t winter any more” outdoor activity?

Julie: Every spring, I try and do the Couch to 5K program, to get outside and moving. (I walk faster than I run, so this isn’t any great feat. Just makes me feel better about myself.) I also help get my folks’ summer house ready, which has meant dealing with gifts from mice the last three years. (Here’s hoping that won’t happen this year. Yeesh.) I also give myself or get a pedicure, and try to get my feet used to wearing sandals again. I live in a condo, otherwise it would be all about gardening as well.

IMG_4486Jessie: I head to the beach and start preparing the house my family has there for the season. I open the windows and remake all the beds with fresh linens. I stock my container garden and plant the window boxes. I rake out the garden beds and bring out the patio furniture. When I’m done I head to the beach and fly a kite.

Liz: Getting outside during the day – shaggywhether I’m working at the office or at home. If I’m at the office, I’ll grab a friend and we’ll head to Bushnell Park in Hartford and do a few laps, then grab a Starbucks on the way back. At home, I try to get Shaggy to the green for a walk. It gives me a good excuse to get out.

Edith: Let’s hear it for flying a kite after chores, the first pedicure, and laps at the park! For me, it’s eating at the table on the deck, preferably all three meals in the day. Planting the vegetable garden is huge. But a lot of it is just gazing at the fully greened-up trees,April lawns, and shrubs. Forsythia turns from yellow to green. Tree branches get hidden by emerald leaves. The garlic I planted in the fall pushes happily up from its hay mulch. Even my baby blueberries bushes sprout brilliant green leaves. Call me happy.

photo_2Sherry: This is the second week in a row I have to confess to having no special rites of passage or spring routines. Seeing this week’s topic made me ponder this. I decided that maybe it’s because since 1981 I’ve lived lots of different places with lots of different climates. I’ve moved, on average, about every three years. Perhaps if I stayed one place for a long period of time I’d settle into some routine but I’m not sure I even want to. I walk all year long through sleet and rain and dark of night but that’s only because I have a dog and a yard without a fence. I do love when spring buds out in wave after wave of blooming trees, flowers, and bushes.

Barb: I love being outdoors, and this spring has been so late in New England, I’m especially excited. I move my writing operation to the porch, especially our deep front porch in Boothbay Harbor, Maine where I am inspired by the views of sailboats, lobster boats, islands and sea birds. I also look especially for restaurants where we can dine alfresco.

Readers: What is your favorite “it isn’t winter any more” outdoor activity?

The Detective’s Daughter – How Does Your Garden Grow?

kimspolicehatBy Kim, enjoying the warm weather in Baltimore.

Me as a child in my garden.

Me as a child in my garden.

As a child I lived in a row house on the end of the block with a yard that ran the length of our house. There were rose bushes at one end and tulips along the fence. It was my grandmother’s pride and joy, though my grandfather kept it going. I helped him. It was my job to hold his beer as he mowed the grass or weeded around the flowers. Summer was the best season. We would sit in the yard after dinner, shaded by the tree, reading, talking, or just listening to the Orioles game on the radio.

I miss that house, but mostly I miss being in the garden. The house was built in the 1860’s and our family had been its only owners. Every occasion, big or small, was marked by a photo next to the gate. I believe all families have a special place where they gather to take their photographs. I have hundreds of photos of my own children standing on our front steps. I wish I had taken more of them in the garden at my father’s house.

My great grandmother in 1867.

My great grandmother in 1867.

My grandmother and her brother in the early 1900's.

My grandmother and her brother in the early 1900’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After my grandfather passed away Dad became the caretaker of the garden. He put in a fish pond and planted bamboo that overtook the flowers. My grandmother was suffering from dementia and only seemed to notice that Dad had taken our statue of the Blessed Mother from the garden. He’d wrapped it in a Hefty bag and stored the statue in the basement.

Dad as a boy in the 1930's.

Dad as a boy in the 1930’s.

The statue didn’t survive the fire, not much did. Dad was at a restaurant when the blaze started. My grandmother had died a few years before and he was now living in the house alone. I was in my own home fixing dinner with the television on when I saw the Action News helicopter hovering above a burning building that looked oddly familiar. By the time I reached the house the firemen had been evacuated and were standing across the street with Dad smoking cigarettes. The fence melted, the tree was charred and only the brick walls and marble steps remained.

I thought of snapping a photo the next day when I went back to see the damage, but I knew I wouldn’t need a reminder, it was forever burned on my brain. As hard as I tried I couldn’t salvage the house, but I was able to rescue the rose bushes that now grow in my own yard.

Readers, where is your special place to take family photos?

Wrestling

By Sherry who is so happy to see blooms on the hydrangeas this year!

I confess, writing book three in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries was more like wrestling a greased pig, than writing a novel. I’ve tried to figure out why and boiled it down to three things.

1. Major change in the plot. When I wrote the proposal for the series the synopsis for book three was this:

Winter in New England means no more yard sales and Sarah Winston had to find a way to keep her fledgling business afloat. Sarah decides to expand her business to include estate sales but her lack of experience makes finding jobs tough. Sarah has to team up with Lexington antique dealer Barney Hightown because competition is stiff. But not as stiff as Barney Hightown’s body when Sarah stumbles over it in a remote barn when she’s bidding on a project. Sarah must find the killer before he finds her.

IMG_3569When it came time to start writing All Murders Final last fall, I felt like there were other books out there about estate sales and wanted to try something different. Two years ago my friend’s daughter, Amanda, told me about a virtual garage sale in her town. It was a site for re-selling high-end clothing that was in good condition. Amanda told me when people posted clothes that weren’t nice enough, comments got catty. That intrigued me. Around the same time a new neighbor, Ashley, moved in across the street from me. She is the administrator of a local virtual garage sale site that has 6,000 members. Her stories went beyond catty to actual threats. Be still my fiction writing heart.

So I wrote a new synopsis. Sarah still has the same problem with what to do in a New England winter but this time her solution is a virtual garage sale site. Problem solved, right? No, of course not (otherwise there wouldn’t be three things on the list.)

2. Book launch. Several authors, including Jan Burke and Ellen Crosby, told me: You are only a new author once. I pondered what they meant but didn’t really understand until recently. The weeks leading up to a launch are filled with emotional ups and downs. I couldn’t wait to see Tagged for Death on the shelves, but I also dreaded being reviewed. In a panicked moment I wondered if it was possible for me to buy every copy and keep them for myself. It almost felt like I was taking my beautiful baby out in public for the first time and complete strangers could come up and criticize her: that nose is really big, why doesn’t she have more hair, that outfit is awful. You get the picture.

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Tagged for Death book launch.

And in the midst of all that anxiety and joy, you have blog posts to write, appearances, and books to sale. Fortunately, all the good things: the book is on shelves across the country! People showed up to the launch party! Strangers bought my books at signings! Tagged was nominated for an Agatha! outweighed the stupid anxieties. But all of it takes time away from writing especially if you are a pantster with procrastination tendencies like I am. (I don’t know what I’d do if I had a day job like Liz and Julie do!)

3. Is this it? syndrome. My contract is for three books. Of course I hope my contract will be extended but I won’t know until after book three is done and turned in. So just in case the contract isn’t extended, this book, book three, has to be the best book I’ve ever written (not that I wouldn’t want it to be even if I knew I was writing ten more). It has to wrap up the story arc but at the same time it has to leave room for future stories. There are relationship decisions to be made. There are people to kill and mysteries to solve. There’s the launch of the second book and the continuing promotion of the first. No pressure. (Wickeds and other authors out there with more than one series, I don’t know how you do it.)

Before and after  Barb Goffman's editing!

Before and after Barb Goffman’s editing!

Last Friday morning around 11:02 the wrestling match with book three was over and I won — with a ton of help from freelance editor Barb Goffman. Oh, it still needs to be read through by my beta readers and polished so Sarah isn’t shuddering or shivering every other sentence. But I finally felt like I wrapped my arms around that greased pig and lifted her triumphantly into the air. I spent Friday afternoon reading for pleasure. I had dinner with a couple of friends, went to a book signing for Kathryn O’Sullivan, and did a Skype meeting with a book club in Illinois. And all I can think today is I am one lucky lady!

Readers: Have you ever had a hard time with a project that you thought might be easier the third time around?

Tasers, SWAT Teams, and K9s – Just Another Day in Willimantic

By Liz, enjoying my first week out of Book Jail!

Speaking of jail, I had a big moment recently: I graduated from the Citizen’s Police Academy in my townGraduation Program

I jumped at the chance to participate in the 11-week program because, well, you know me—I love this stuff. Crime, law enforcement, the whys of murder and mayhem, how it all fits together. I take every chance I get to do a deeper dive into how law enforcement works, the things cops  see and how it affects them.

Like the time Edith and I went to Lee Lofland’s fabulous Writer’s Police Academy. We did building searches, shot guns and dug up bodies from a shallow grave. Or the time when, as a journalist, I was asked to participate in a weekend-long SIG SAUER Academy program on handguns. Then there was the (now retired) chief of police whom I drafted as my consultant for another book. All of those experiences were invaluable.

Research like this has a huge impact on how I come up with ideas for a book and how I write about investigating a crime and other tactics. But it also helps me plot the book, develop characters, and ensure my setting fits with the story and the crime.

So I went into the program with the attitude of, Cool, I get to do more research, have more hands-on training, get to know some local police and hopefully get a contact on the force who’ll take my never-ending questions.

I have to admit, I was also curious about what I would find—both in town, and on the force. Willimantic has a reputation. I’ve lived here since 2008, and really only pass through on my way to work and home, or visit the food co-op, the gas station or a restaurant.

(Note – It’s kind of complicated, but I live in the larger town and am not covered by the local police. Only the city district has its own force, and the rest of us are covered by the state police.)

One of the K9s sniffing out drugs.

One of the K9s sniffing out drugs.

But it’s always good to get some understanding of your surroundings, right? So off I went, buoyed by the promise of SWAT teams and K9s and maybe, just maybe, getting to taser someone. I was like the nerdy kid looking forward to the first day of school.

I wasn’t disappointed. Sgt. Glode and Cpl. Miller, who ran the program, did a phenomenal job. This was the second iteration of the academy. There were about 30 of us—double the amount they expected, but they didn’t want to turn anyone away. The whole point, they said, was to educate the people of the town so they could take the message about what they do and how they do it back to the rest of the population.

Each week they focused on a different topic, and every officer on the force contributed. Some weeks had more than one topic, depending on subject matter. SWAT week, for instance, took the whole three hours. We got to see the weapons, sit in the MRAP (mine resistant, ambush protected military vehicle donated to the town), and even beat down a steel door with a battering ram.

During K9 week, we got to meet the three police dogs, all sworn officers, and watch them sniff out drugs their handlers had stashed for our benefit. During Use of Force week, we did drills—facing off with potential assailants and handling whatever situation arose. Some were able to talk their way out of it, others had to fight, still others had to taser. (Yes, I got to use the taser.) It was fun. It was also scary when you saw how fast things could go wrong.

Given the amount of news coverage lately about police use of force, this exercise was definitely timely. And so important, especially for people who have no experience with law enforcement and how they do their jobs. Experiencing it, even in a role-playing capacity, gives you a whole new perspective. Then you can sort through the facts of a specific incident before passing judgment on either party for their actions. As another police officer so succinctly put it, “All lives matter.”

So what’d I learn, aside from the mechanics of tasering someone? Here’s a few:

You can’t judge a community by reputation alone. Every place has its problems. This place is lucky to have such a dedicated group of men and women protecting its citizens.

Riding a police bike through an obstacle course is really, really hard. You have to go wicked slow. For the record, I didn’t do it. I knew I would fall off the bike. Or take out most of the cones.

Cops get scared, too. I suppose I knew this already, but in a sure, everyone gets scared sort of way. These officers have to deal with serious, sometimes deadly situations. I give them major credit for hitting the streets every day. Give them some support and respect, eh?

We all need to be part of the solution. Towns and cities won’t improve if everyone is fighting each other. Citizens who’ve taken courses like this can help simply by bringing the message to the rest of the public. Get everyone talking to each other and working together. It’s got to make a difference.

Getting my diploma from Chief Lisa Maruzo-Bolduc.

Getting my diploma from Chief Lisa Maruzo-Bolduc.

I may have told some of you that my grandfather was a policeman for nearly 30 years. He started out walking the beat and finally became a detective. He shared some stories with me, but not nearly enough before he died nearly 16 years ago. Every time I get to do something like this, I feel like he’s finding a way to share more of his stories with me. I’m thankful I got to be part of it.

And I’m thankful to all the officers of the Willimantic PD, and all police officers, for their service.

P.S. The ride-along was fabulous, too!

Readers, any experiences with a Citizens Police Academy?

The Right Tool for the Job

Jessie: In New Hampshire, outnumbered by black flies.

Every year I make a list of things I want to accomplish. I’m an avid knitter and this year I have included completing a lace project on my list. For some reason, despite years of intermittently trying, I haven’t managed to conquer lace. I’ve made cabled, Fair Isle and Icelandic sweaters. I churn out socks. I’ve whipped up blankets, shawls and hats. I’ve even produced a toy pug.

But lace knitting has defeated me utterly. For years I’ve had a beautiful skein of midnight blue heathered merino wool in my stash just begging to be made into a light and drapy shawl. About once a year I pull it out and give it another go. I dig out needles, find a simple pattern, take a deep breath and tell myself that this time it will be different.

On the first row, I am hopeful. On the second I am less so. By the twelfth, fifteenth or on the luckiest of years, twentieth, I know I’ll be unraveling the whole mess and putting it away until the memory fades once more.

About a month ago I decided the time had come once more for me to face down the dragon. I pulled out a ball of lace weight yarn, this time a beautiful turquoise alpaca and silk blend. I plucked a couple of pairs of needles from my collection and found a four-row pattern on the knitting website, Ravelry.

As I sat down and cast on I could feel things getting off on the wrong foot. My usually adept hands felt clumsy and rather than the soothing rhythm of stitch after stitch sliding across the slick needles I just felt my shoulders creeping up around my ears.

I stopped and and looked down at what I was doing feeling the familiar sense of frustration  that I just was not going to be able to produce anything that would satisfy me, anything like what I had imagined. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the problem might be that I had chosen the wrong tools. The rounded tips and slick surface of my favorite needles might not be the best choice for beginning lace making. I sorted through a batch of infrequently used needles and found a wooden pair in the right size with pointy tips. Sure enough, that was the problem. It was so easy to solve if I had just looked at it a little differently.

The same thing happens in my writing. I’ll encounter a tangle in my plot, a dropped stitch in my story, a thread in the tale that has gone all wonky and I can’t resolve it by trying and trying to use the same tools the same old way. Sometimes, I have to move from the computer to a stack of index cards to jostle an idea into place. Other times I need to write in the afternoon instead of the morning. Frequently, I need to set the project aside long enough to have forgotten what a mess I had made.

But writing, like knitting draws me back again and again despite the disappointments and frustrations. In the end both crafts just need patience, determination, passion and a willingness to fail until you finally succeed.

Readers, are there things in your life that you are determined to learn? I’d love to hear about them!