Wicked Wednesday: Who does it best?

It’s Wicked Wednesday, when we all weigh in on a topic. Keeping with our theme of “themes in cozies,” today we’re talking about the toughest theme a cozy tackled that stuck with us, and which authors do it best. So Wickeds, your thoughts?

MarriageCanBeMurderBarb: I love Susan Santangelo’s Baby Boomer Mysteries– Retirement Can Be Murder, Moving Can Be Murder, Marriage Can Be Murder and Class Reunions Can Be Murder. Santangelo combines a hugely likeable protagonist with a fabulous supporting cast, as well as great voice and writing. She also tackles serious themes about the changes our outsized generation marches through as we age–with a very light touch. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and every book delivers more than it promises.

Jessie: I really like the way Alexander McCall Smith explores cultural changes and what’s at stake when outside values begin to impact communities. His #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books do such a wonderful job of celebrating the positives of traditional Botswana while acknowledging that changes are occurring.

SoldierEdith: Julia Spencer-Fleming writes sort of cozy. In her recent One Was a Soldier, she beautifully, painfully, tenderly tackles issues of returning vets from the Iraqi war, among whom is her protagonist, Clare Fergusson. She said she took extra long to write it because she wanted to give veterans the deep and respectful treatment they deserve.

Til Dirt do us Part CoverA Biscuit, A casket.inddSherry: I didn’t have to look far to find two authors who I think do this brilliantly, Liz Mugavero and Edith Maxwell. Both of them are passionate not only in their fictional lives but also in their real lives about their topics. For Liz it’s animal rescue and feeding animals organic foods. For Edith it’s local organic foods. Both of them work the topics into their plot lines without being preachy or shoving it down the reader’s throat.

Liz: Aww Sherry, you’re so sweet :) Edith stole my answer – I was going to say Julia Spencer-Fleming as well. She tackles a lot of tough topics with grace and brilliance. And I have to add Barb Ross to my list. She covers inclusion and the struggle of fitting in flawlessly. Similarly, Jessie Crockett tackles one of the toughest subjects ever so well – family.

Readers: Who do you nominate for tackling a tough subject in a cozy, and why?

The Detective’s Daughter — Seventy-eight Candles

kimspolicehatBy Kim Gray in Baltimore City

kimDadbaby-1Friday is my dad’s birthday. It’s been eight years since he  left the world we know, but that won’t stop me from celebrating. I usually make spaghetti and meatballs and we play 500 Rummy after dinner. Growing up my grandmother would start planning her only child’s birthday the week before. Every year it was pretty much the same. The night of his birthday we’d go to Enzee’s on Ritchie Highway for dinner, eat pasta and watch as my dad opened his present of a shirt and matching tie we’d bought at Buchman’s on Light Street. Afterwards, we would go home and play cards. It was simple, predictable, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

One of my dad’s birthdays was particularly memorable. Summer days were much longer back then, they slowly evolved into night and not many of us noticed. We continued on what we were doing no matter the time of day. In the evening my grandfather would haul out our portable television set, attach it to an extension cord and put it on the top step. Our neighbors did the same thing. The block was lined with people sitting out watching TV on their aluminum folding chairs. Mom would give my sister and me a bath and do our hair in braids and then sit us on the steps much like the television. I sat in my Pop-Pop’s lap while my sister stayed closer to the screen. It was her job to change the channels.

It was a night much like all the other summer nights. Mom sat reading a book, my grandmother crocheted, and Dad was in bed because he wasn’t on summer vacation. He had to work the next day even if it was his birthday. Pop-Pop had just unplugged the television and we’d barely walked into our kitchen when Dad barreled down the steps and raced out the front door. I’d never seen him move that fast. Mom, my grandparents, and I all rushed to the front door to see what was happening. Dad was in the middle of the street, kneeling on the back of a man who was crying.

Kimpajamas-2“You trying to steal my car?” Dad shouted. We couldn’t hear the man’s response, only his sobbing. Dad pulled him up by his hair and whipped out a pair of handcuffs, seemingly from thin air. Where did they come from? Dad was only wearing pajama bottoms and a tee shirt! Mom tried to shuffle me back inside, but I wasn’t missing this.

By the time Dad dragged this man to our steps, a shop owner from the corner shop appeared with an explanation. It seemed this young man worked for the shop owner and he’d sent the man to retrieve something from his car. He gave him the keys to a black Cadillac. Dad’s Cadillac was dark blue. The young man mistook Dad’s car for his boss’s car. Everyone was invited in for coffee and some sort of sweet treat my grandmother whipped up. Dad went to bed uninterested in making amends  and claiming the young man was still a punk. No one really knew what kind of shop the guy on the corner ran. It wasn’t long after that the shop closed.

kimdad-3It was the most eventful birthday I remember. The neighbors talked of it long after Dad had shrugged the episode off. It was the first of many times I would witness Dad’s detective persona.

Happy birthday, Dad. I hope wherever you are you’re enjoying spaghetti and winning at cards.

Can a Panster Become a Plotter — Part Two

By Sherry Harris

Last November I wrote a blog titled “Can a Panster Become a Plotter”. In it I said I’d write an update in August. Well, it’s August and my deadline is only days away. So here’s what happened:

I was struggling with writing the required synopsis last November but two Barbs came to the rescue — Barb Ross and Barb Goffman — read “Can a Panster Become a Plotter” to find out how. I wrote a seven page synopsis for book two — Deal or Die. After I sent it off to my editor I stuck it in the proverbial drawer aka a computer file and forgot about it. I started writing the book. Things were going swimmingly and then I got to the middle. What is it with me and the middle? I really, really hate the middle. (See previous panster blog!)

IMG_3749So I did what I usually do and wrote the end of the book. After I finished that I was at a loss of what to do next. Then I remembered the synopsis. I pulled it out, dusted it off, and read through it. Oh, yes, there in the synopsis was a middle or at least part of the middle. And layers and characters that I’d completely forgotten about. Lest I made this process sound too easy it was more like trying to weave an intricate spider web back together.

When that was finished I had a crisis of confidence. I hated it and thought it had no voice, no humor, no nothing. So once again I turned to the other Wickeds. They encouraged me, told me to tell to the editor in my head to shut up (thank you Edith), and asked what they could do to help. Then Barb Ross said this:

If you either have voice or you don’t, then you DO have it, as Tagged (Tagged For Death) proves.

A couple of suggestions.

Barb with more great advice for me. (Photo by Meg Manion Photography)

Barb with more great advice. (Photo by Meg Manion Photography)

If voice is elusive, go back and read a part of Tagged you feel is strong. It’s like a singer listening to a pitch pipe to find the right key. Do this as many times as you need to. You might even read a part of Tagged that’s similar to what you’re writing now–discovery, action, denouement, etc.

I firmly believe voice = confidence and confidence = voice. Voice is what convinces the reader to give their consciousness over to the storyteller. The reader needs to feel the storyteller is confident in her ability to tell the story in order to be willing to go on the journey. Therefore, problems with voice often mask unresolved issues within the story. If the author has problems with the story she’s telling, that undermines confidence and shuts down voice. Ask yourself if there are any issues you need to address in order to have confidence in the story you’re telling.

BarbGoffmanHeadShotAfter rewriting I  turned the book over to Barb Goffman to edit. She pushed me to make sure the reader knew what Sarah was thinking and seeing. She wanted more reaction to the events going on around Sarah. Barb also pointed out what was well written and amusing.

I’m going through another round of edits — the voice issue wasn’t the mountain I’d made it out to be. I’ve decided I’m a hybrid  writer — part panster and part plotter. In the next few days I’ll be turning in this manuscript. And then it starts all over with writing the synopsis for Murder As Is. Stay tuned…

Ask the Expert — C. Michele Dorsey Family Law Attorney

Sherry: Michele thanks so much for taking time from your busy schedule to join us today. When I was writing Tagged for Death I had a question about divorce laws in Massachusetts. I turned to Michelle for advice.

Name: C. Michele Dorsey, but you can skip the “C.”
Area of Expertise: I am a Family Law Attorney, Mediator and Writer

MicheleHow did you end up in Family Law?

I was a nurse before I became a lawyer. I think working with people in physical pain prepared me for representing people who are experiencing a different kind of pain. People who are going through a divorce face the loss of family and must grieve. My experience as a nurse taught me how to listen, be compassionate and when to tell someone it’s time to stop licking their wounds and start living life again. I use the same skills as a lawyer.

What is one thing we should know about your area of expertise?

Cases are often resolved these days through Alternative Dispute Resolution, “ADR”  (mediation, arbitration, collaborative law, etc.), rather than litigation. If you are going to use ADR in your story, understand it is very different from litigation. The first scene in “The Wedding Crashers” is a mediation. It’s very funny, but it also gets it right.

What do people usually get wrong when writing about family law issues?

People often get a whole lot wrong when writing about family law issues, which is problematic because half of the population, including your readers, are divorced and will catch you if you are wrong. It’s easy to check the law for your jurisdiction with so much information available online. Knowing whether your state still has fault grounds, allows certain claims for alimony and how marital property is divided will lend credibility to your story.

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?

If you are a writer looking for ideas about conflict, human drama and relationships, spend a morning in your local family court listening. What unfolds every day in the courtroom is an amazing array of human tragedy, with an occasional triumph. Your notebook will be full in a few hours.

What are you working on?

IMG_0007My agent is closing a deal on a mystery I wrote set in St John, USVI, but for now my lips are sealed. I am working on a mystery about a divorce lawyer who returns home from court one day to find her husband dead in their bed with a pair of black panties between the sheets that don’t belong to her. I am also writing a nonfiction book to help people choose an enlightened path to divorce.

Do you use your expert knowledge in your writing?

Yes, in many ways. For one thing, I am always filling the well with potential stories when I am in court. I also listen to people, noting how they express themselves, to help with writing dialogue. A family law case is really a story unfolding with all of the elements of conflict evolving much like a plot in a book, which has helped me with structure.
Oh, and it always helps to include a nasty lawyer in a book. They make delicious and vicious villains. I wonder why. But that would be for another conversation.
Thanks for inviting me to your wonderful Wicked Cozy Authors Blog.

C. “Michele” Dorsey writes mysteries, romantic comedy, nonfiction and an occasional poem. She is also a lawyer, mediator and adjunct professor of law, who finds inspiration and serenity on the island of St. John, USVI, where her latest mystery is set. Michele was a finalist in St. Martin’s Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition in 2013 for No Virgin Island, in 2012 for Oh Danny Girl, and in 2004 for My Pink Slippers.

Readers: Do you have a question about family law for Michele? She’ll be stopping by throughout the day to answer them.

What’s in a Name?

Jessie: On the coast of Maine, happily soaking up every last drop of summertime

I’m working on a new project and new projects involve large amounts of one of my favorite parts of writing, naming the characters. I have no idea why it would be the case but I absolutely love naming things. If I weren’t a writer I think I’d love to be someone who dreams up the names for lipsticks, nail polishes and house paint.

Sometimes names magically rush fully formed into my head along with the characters who own them. Often those names and characters show up even before the story does. For the Sugar Grove mystery I completed in June the entire direction of the book grew from the name of the victim.

Other times I have a type of character in mind because of the story I have planned and I  set out to deliberately craft the name for that character. I start with the time period in which the story is set and the age of the character. Then I head straight over to the Social Security Administration website to consult their database of names. Usually, I start by checking names by decade and then may move on to checking by region.

The database also lists given names by popularity. You can look at the top 1000 names and one of the questions I ask myself about the character is what sort of parents would he or she have had? Would they have chosen a popular or a more unique name of their child? As I decide on an answer this gives me some insight into the character’s background.

I like to use New Hampshire and Maine phone books for surnames. I think names commonly found in a locale in real life lend a sense of authenticity to the fictional world.

I use Scrivener for my writing and it has a handy character list that I can leave open in front of me. The list helps me to be sure I don’t choose the same initials for too many characters. Donald, Desmond and Douglas cause a lot of trouble if they are in the same story. So can too many surnames that begin with “Mc” or end with “son”.

I think about the way the name sounds when I say it aloud. I think about my personal preferences and how I react to the name. I look up the meaning and explore possible nicknames. I think about whether or not someone would like to be gifted with the name I am planning for them.

After I’ve got a name I am pleased with I google it to be sure I haven’t dreamed up an already famous name because I am ignorant of something historically or in pop culture. In the best case scenario there is no one with the name that turns up in my searching. The next best thing is for it to turn up frequently for many different people. Once the name has passed that hurdle it gets added to the list and the character begins to become real to me.  I can start to see her in my mind’s eye or hear his voice.

So what’s in a name? For me, the start of something wonderful.

Readers, do you like naming things? Children, pets, characters of you own? Do you love discovering the names leafing out your family tree? I’d love to hear some of your favorite names too.

 

 

Wicked Wednesday: Keeping it Light

It’s Wicked Wednesday, when we all weigh in on a topic. We’re talking themes in cozies, and last week we discussed some of the bigger subject matter in our books. This week, we’re talking about how we keep those stories enjoyable and light while still making the book meaningful.

wickedcozies3Barb: Cozies are entertainment. I’m reminded of that regularly by fans who write that they enjoyed one of my books at the bedside of an ailing family member, or after a grueling eight-hour shift in the NICU, or in the ten minutes between when they pulled their car up at soccer practice and when practice ended, which were the only ten minutes they had to themselves all day. One way I think cozies in particular are entertaining is that they contain fantasy elements. Readers should fantasize that they want to live in a place like that, with people like that. I always keep this in mind when I’m writing.

Jessie: I like to use humor. I like including quirky people and funky buildings. I like kooky situations that are just bound to turn into family legends for my characters.

Liz: Animals are always great for lightening the mood. Their personalities are all so unique, and their antics alone are enough to ease the tension of a murder investigation. And who can resist laughing at a doggie costume party?

Sherry: It’s a delicate balance between light and slapstick — each has it’s place in the cozy world. I am working hard at creating characters that have realistic reactions to the crimes that occur. That said, no one is going to want to read (in a cozy anyway) about someone who’s going through a lengthy grieving process. I’ve really had fun writing one of my secondary characters. He has his own way of doing things and believes deeply that his way is right. He lightens the mood and reminds my protagonist, Sarah, the world isn’t such a bad place.

Edith: Rescue chickens! (Oh, have I mentioned them before?) Seriously, I love the inspiration to include chickens in the Local Foods series, because they’re so funny. I also have a couple of quirky secondary characters who lighten things up. In my second Lauren Rousseau mystery (out in November), we met Lauren’s friend Irene who runs the local Greek bakery and can always be counted on to tease, make a joke, offer a glass of wine. Sometimes it’s the protagonist’s sidekick – whether sister, BFF, coworker, or whoever – who keeps the balance from getting too dark.

Julie: All great answers. I would add a dash of romance helps keep them light, and entertaining. Pacing the romance so it doesn’t get boring is critical. And adding the ups and downs of a relationship adds conflict. Like all of this, it is balance.

Photograph by Meg Manion Photography!

Readers: What do you think keeps a book light?

The real inspiration behind the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries

By Liz, wishing she was on a beach somewhere before the rest of summer passes us by

Last week was a tough week. I lost one of my best little friends, a cat named Tweetie.Tweetie Bird This little guy was a huge love and touched everyone he met – and even people who had never met him, as apparent by all the Facebook well wishers during his brief illness – but he was also the real inspiration behind the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries.

If it wasn’t for Tweetie, I may never have gotten so involved in animal nutrition. When I adopted him 11 years ago, he was a sick fella. Chronic upper respiratory disease plagued him, and the vets were concerned he would not improve. I had always been interested in homeopathy and natural medicine, and Tweetie was the perfect reason to jump in and figure it out.

Tweetie and friendsI researched homeopathic vets in my area and found Dr. Martha Lindsay, a wonderful woman who has made such a difference in my and my animals lives over the past 11 years. It was she who told me that if an animal doesn’t have good nutrition, they will never reach their healing potential. She got me started feeding the cats “real” food, and also recommended a raw diet for those animals who were open to it. Some that weren’t healthy, she cautioned, might never adjust well to it.

Well, for all his health problems, Tweetie adjusted well to all of it. In fact, he was probably the only cat (next to Pumpkin, the orange one pictured above) who would eat virtually anything. Meat, rice, eggs, raw food, veggies..yes, veggies. He would often Tweetie_Windowuse his oversized paw to swipe broccoli, green beans, asparagus – anything green – off my plate. Veggies made him so happy, he sang songs to tell us how much he had enjoyed his helping. And the best part? His health dramatically improved. Ever since then, animal nutrition has been something I’m always thinking about. It’s funny how things work, because all these years later it became the basis for this series. Tweetie rose

Tuffy the Maine coon cat and Shaggy the schnoodle get most of the credit for being the muses of the books, but Tweetie was the real muse. Without everything he taught me, this series would not exist. That’s the kind of guy he was, though – he never asked for the limelight. He was just happy to be loved, have a nice house, some friends…and some broccoli.

Rest in peace, Tweetie Bird. xo

Readers, share your experiences with a pet that changed your life. I’d love to hear them.