Changing the Narrative


Bezel and Blue, created by my niece.

Last week I was fortunate enough to go on vacation with my nieces. The three of us rented a house up on a lake in New Hampshire. Their folks left Sunday night, and then my sister came back Thursday night. But for the majority of the week, it was the three of us. Both of my nieces have a lot of interests, and varying types of artistic expression. One of them, B., created Bezel and Blue out of piles of fluff and a needle, I kid you not. The other niece, T., loves music, and so she DJ’d our puzzling time on the porch. “Who’s this?” I’d ask. “Which one is that?” I sounded cranky, even to myself. I kept getting the names of the bands wrong, which she tolerated with a laugh. (My Chemical Romance turned into My Chemically Induced Romance, which isn’t the same thing. At all.) I mentioned that to my sister, and she said something that called me up short.

“Well, we had Flock of Seagulls, and Tears for Fears. Not a lot of room to throw stones. Remember the grief we’d get?”

Time for a behavior shift for Aunt Julie. I remembered my thirteen and a half year old self, discovering music and books, hesitant in my adoration, trying to play it cool just in case someone made fun of me. I remembered my father bringing home a Partridge Family album when I was about eleven, and the joy of feeling supported in my love for David Cassidy. (Dad still made fun of the songs, but I think he knew the lyrics.) Being a fan of something is risky, especially for a teenager. Having an aunt who isn’t listening won’t help.

So I started asking questions better questions, so she could teach me. “Is this Panic! At The Disco or My Chemical Romance?”


I’d listen to the lyrics, and I’d guess. Her sister likes both bands, but doesn’t share her passion, so she’d guess as well. We’d all discuss the difference between the bands, and their music. T. would quote lyrics, and give us the backstory on songs. I’d still offer opinions, but I made sure I’d never make her feel like her musical taste didn’t matter. I didn’t pretend that I loved everything. I just acknowledged that we could have different opinions, because we had different points of view.

Have you heard of the musical Hamilton? I haven’t seen it yet, but I have listened to it a bunch of times and love it. The lyrics and the show itself upend expectations around history, casting, musical, storytelling. Changing the narrative is part of the conceit of the show. “Who lives, who dies, who tells their story” matters. As a writer, I control narrative. I tell the stories. Is my entire narrative told from the point of view of a fifty year old, or do I try to use other lenses? Who else tells their story? What stories do I read/watch/listen to that aren’t like my own?

I am very proud to have played a small part in Sisters in Crime’s 2016 Publishing Summit Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community, titled Report For Change. The report talks about issues around inclusion in the field. The topic is complicated, but important. The report is forward thinking, which we all need to be, and lays out some paths for change. One thing I am thinking about a lot as we wrestle with these issues is the same life lesson I learned from my niece.

Being kind, and open to other narratives, does not take away from your own. They may make you reconsider things, but that’s all right. It adds to the richness of your life. Who knows, they may also give you a new perspective to add to your life.

By the way, I downloaded Panic! At The Disco’s Death of a Bachelor. Changing the narrative.

Rebalancing Act

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, wondering where the summer has gone…

Financial advisors often tell us to be sure to rebalance our investment portfolios at least once a year, or whenever we have a major life change, to make sure we keep an appropriate mix of investments for whatever our life goals are.

Right now, I’m in a similar kind of rebalancing act.

I was laid off from my corporate job three years ago, and I’ve been freelancing since then. Anybody who’s ever been self-employed or has freelanced knows that it’s incredibly, well, freeing to be in charge of one’s own work destiny. But it takes discipline, both of the mental and financial varieties, to be successful. With no boss but yourself looking over your shoulder, and steady paychecks a thing of the past, you’ve really got to bring it.

And I’ve loved bringing it.

But during this time, I’ve also been open to new opportunities. I applied for quite a few jobs, but got surprisingly few interviews. A few months ago, I put in yet another application for a job I found through an online job matching service. I’d more or less forgotten about it when, lo and behold, I got an interview. And then another. And then was asked to do some job-specific testing and to travel out-of-state for an interview.

Bottom line is, I’m going back to work full-time, at a job in the book business that I’m incredibly excited about, right after Labor Day. The same day I officially become an empty nester when my only child starts college in the city. And almost exactly three years to the day after I left my corporate job.

So where does this leave my writing? Well, darlings, to paraphrase Rick Astley, never gonna give that up! But now that I’ll be on someone else’s schedule again, I’ll need to rebalance my days. Writing, exercising, housecleaning and cooking (I fantasize there will be less of that with my son gone!)–all these things got done, and probably more efficiently, when I worked before. So I’m not worried. And I am, as I think I mentioned, very, very excited about my new situation.

As summer comes to an end (and yes, you scientific types, I know summer doesn’t actually end astronomically until September something), do you rebalance? Any tips for me for getting it all done again?

Wicked Wednesday: Mythbusters VI–Getting Advice on a Manuscript

Mythbusters_ critiquersPre-published and published authors get lots of advice on getting advice. Some people say you must have a writers group to succeed. Others say that kind of review stifles creativity and produces homogenized products. Some people have beta readers, some use outside editors. There all kinds of opinions about what advice you need, when you need it, and what to do with it once you get it.



Edith: I think what kind of critique a writer gets depends partly on her personality. I don’t Editedpagemind sharing scenes with my in-person writing group, even if they aren’t fully polished, because the members have such good feedback and they know my several series by now. I know some writers, though, who cringe at the thought of getting scene by scene critiqued. At this stage in my career I do rely on an outside editor (yay, Sherry Harris and yay Ramona DeFelice Long!) to be my beta reader/developmental editor before I send the book in, but I didn’t for my first couple of books. Some of the Guppies find manuscript swaps invaluable.

Liz: Agree with the personality comment, Edith. With writing groups, I think the structure and level of the group matters as you get further along in your career. As you grow, your writing grows, which means you need critique partners who are also growing and maturing in their work so you can help each other. I enjoy getting plotting help from my fellow Wickeds and a few other creative folks while I’m in development mode. Then when I have a good draft, Sherry offers her invaluable advice and feedback (we sure do keep her busy, don’t we?). If there’s time, I’ll get other opinions from those I trust, but alas, I often don’t leave myself enough time!

Barb: I’ve been in a writers group for twenty years. It’s taken a long time for us to learn how to critique–that different levels and kinds of comments are needed at first draft, second draft and so on. We have different strengths as critiquers–structure, plot, action scenes, pace. And we know each others’ foibles. “This is very over-written, but we know you always do that in the first draft and simplify later, so no worries.” So it’s a comfortable, safe place. I also have a developmental editor who looks at the whole draft once I have it (Hi, Sherry! Another shout out.) What I’m lacking are “virgin eyes.” Someone to look at the next book who hasn’t read the rest of the series and can tell me if someone who is new to the series will be able to follow. I find it harder and harder to judge that.

Sherry: I have that same new eyes worry too, Barb! And it’s been weighing on my mind as I write the fifth book in the Sarah Winston series. I write my first draft and ship it off to Barb Goffman to do a developmental edit! She’s really great about making me up Sarah’s internal dialog and emotional reactions to the events happening in the book. I rework the manuscript and send it to a group of Beta readers who change depending on who has time. Their input has been invaluable and they always seem to spot different things. Thanks for the shout out ladies! I’m honored to be a small part of your writing process and learn from all of you.

Jessie: I agree with Edith about the value of the groups being tied to personality. I sort of wish I wanted to join a writing group but I don’t, not really. I feel very private about my early drafts and never share any of them with anyone at all. I think if I knew I had to let anyone see those first stabs at the story I would be unable to write at all. In fact, the only person I always share my work with before it goes to the readers is my editor at Berkley. I usually have my husband cast his sharp eyes over the last couple of drafts for plot holes but not always.

Julie: I don’t belong to a writing group. I have tried a couple, but for whatever reason it hasn’t worked for me. My first reader is my friend Jason–he loves cozies, and is a good “this doesn’t work” “I didn’t understand why she did that” reader. He is also very encouraging, and I feel “safe” having him be the first person I trust with my baby. I do find the Wickeds to be great sounding boards, and I also benefit from the Sherry read through. I was once in a workshop that was so detrimental with feedback that I didn’t write for a year. As I’ve gotten better, I’ve learned how to filter feedback, but for early career writers, take heed. Choose critique partners well. As I progress as a writer I am looking for more detailed feedback, but I still work alone through the first draft. And then, of course, there are my editor’s eyes, which are incredibly important in the process.

So there you have it. One Wicked doesn’t show her manuscripts to anyone until her editor sees them, and others get multiple levels of critiques–and everything in between. Like all the Mythbusters posts, this shows there’s no one way to write.

Writer friends, what are your thoughts on critiquing? Readers, do you think you can tell when a manuscript has been under or over-critiqued?






Wicked New England: Summertime Memories

In New England, unlike much of the rest of the country, lots of schools and colleges don’t start until after Labor Day. But if you’ve ever camped out or spent the latter half of August in drafty New England camp or cottage, you know the days are getting shorter and the nights often provide those crisp temperatures referred to as “good sleeping weather.”

So, before it gets away from us, I’m going to ask all the Wickeds to describe a specific and happy New England summer memory from any year.

Edith: My older son went off to Boston University in 2004. Before he did, I gathered


2010, Crane Beach, Ipswich

his brother, some good friends, my beau – plus food and drink, of course – and we all went to the beach at the end of the day for a picnic. We swam and ate and played games in that special air and light that is the seaside in the late afternoon. We repeated the gathering for many years until he moved away – and still try to grab a late day beach dinner when he comes home in the summer!


Liz: Summer’s my favorite time of the year, and I have so many lovely memories usually

Shaggy, her first summer in New England

Shaggy, her first summer in New England

involving the beach. As a kid, it was always a treat when I’d get up in the morning and my mother would have an unusual twinkle in her eye and sandwiches packed, and announce that we were going to the beach. It was such an adventure then, and it seemed like such a long ride to Salisbury. In reality it was only about 20 minutes. I remember coming off the highway exit and there was a store that used to have giant stuffed animals, and they would be set up along the roadside. Those animals were always my signal that we were almost there – plus they were adorable! As an adult, my favorite summer memory was seven years ago when Shaggy came to town. She loved ice cream and the beach right from the start, so clearly she was meant to be in this house!

Barb: Oh, Liz. I love those childhood memories. There was a railroad track near my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore and the minute we would cross it our dog would stand up in the car, sniff the air, and wag her tail. She knew we were almost there. One of my favorite New England summer memories is at Tanglewood in Lennox, Massachusetts where the Boston Symphony Orchestra spends the summer. A whole group went, my parents, kids, brothers and sisters-in-law. It was a beautiful night, we out did ourselves with the picnic and somehow watching the young cousins on blanket on the lawn, listening to the music…

IMG_9388Sherry: I love going to Maine in the summer, especially in early June before the crowds arrive! The weather is perfect and the roads aren’t too crowded. It gives me time to poke through antique stores or stop at yard sales. A walk on the beach, an outside table at a restaurant, and a great lobster roll say summer to me.

 Readers–what is your favorite summertime memory?




Leaping with Faith

Edith north of Boston – but packing to be south of Philadelphia on retreat for a week starting tomorrow.


JD with greens he grew

The title of this post does not mean I’m going jumping with my seventeen year old Quaker character. Rather, I was thinking about taking leaps of faith, as we call it. My younger son JD is back (on a one-way ticket) from a couple of years working and teaching at Plenitud Puerto Rico, a fabulous permaculture educational farm, and he’s investigating starting a branch of same in New England. It’s a big leap of faith, and I have no doubt he’s going to pull it off.



With camera-shy Tim Ottman, Minami Rinkan, Japan, 1976

I’ve taken a few major leaps of faith in my own life. When I was just twenty-three, I bought a one-way ticket to Japan. I’d been pining for my boyfriend, who was stationed in the US Navy outside Tokyo. So off I went. We lived in a simple little house off base, I found a job teaching English conversation to Japanese businessmen, and I lined up private Japanese lessons. It was a great two years of learning and travel, and I came back to start a linguistics PhD program in Indiana.


Another big risky jump I took was leaving a very good job in high tech to stay home with my newborn and toddler sons, start a small farm, and teach prepared childbirth classes, a family decision I made with my husband. Babies


Farmer Edith and part of the garlic crop, Five Star Organic Farm, 1993

are young for such a short period of time in the overall scheme of our lives, and I didn’t want to miss it. Organic farming had been a passion of mine for a while, so I got to explore that, too. Those five years have now given me two mystery series worth of material – farming and midwifery – too!


The most recent leap off a cliff was quitting another very good job in hi tech. After almost twenty years as a software technical writer (what I retrained as after I left farming), three years ago I cut my five-year plan short by four years and plunged into full-time fiction writing. Financially it would have been prudent for me to keep the good salary, the 401k matching, and the benefits for a few more years. I didn’t have a husband with a cushy salary to fill in the gaps (my beau is talented and hardworking, but he’s self-employed) and I still don’t have what some say is the requisite amount in the bank required before retirement (but who does, really?). On the other hand, I’d landed the Local Foods Mysteries contract, and I was writing the books around the edges of a full-time job with an hour commute each way and no allowance to work from home. I was exhausted and frustrated.

When a dear friend died in her fifties a year after a brain cancer diagnosis, I said, “That’s it. I’m following my dream.” I gave notice, signed up for Affordable Care Act health services, and here I am, writing three series under contract with major publishers.

Your mileage will vary, of course, and past performance does guarantee future…oh, heck. I’d take those three leaps again, any time.

Readers, how about you? Have you taken a major risk in your life? Plunged into a new full-time gig without an adequate safety net?

Opening Lines

It’s Opening Lines day! Today’s pic: What’s in your trash can? Thanks to Siobhan Geraghty for the photo!

Photo Credit: Siobhan Geraghty

Photo Credit: Siobhan Geraghty

Sherry: This isn’t what I had in mind when they hired me to be a garbage man.

Jessie: Sally was done practicing on mannequins. It was time to apply her machete wielding skills to the real target.

Liz: My attempts at quietly sneaking up to the door were in vain when I tripped over the trashcan – and screamed when a head rolled out and landed at my feet.

Julie: I lost my head. Which was a real shame, since it looked so good on top of the dress form I was using for target practice. A lot like my ex-boyfriend, as a matter of fact.If only the dog hadn’t mistaken it for a soccer ball.

Edith: Harold! So that’s where you been hiding. You near give me a cardiac, hiding like that. And dang it all, there’s my best gray undies, too.

Barb: 🎵 I ain’t got no-body 🎵

Readers, leave yours below!


Guest: Denise Swanson

Edith here, enjoying the fresh produce of summer. I met author Denise Swanson in Ann Arbor a couple of years ago. She has a cozy series with its nineteenth book coming out next month! I asked her to share how she got to where she is. Take it away, Denise.

Riding the Whirlwind

For most writers, getting their first book traditionally published is a long and arduous journey. Yes. There’s always that one lucky duck who hits the trifecta on her first submission—right editor, right story, right open spot on marketing plan. But for the rest of us, it takes a long time and a lot of tears to find an agent and a publishing house.

I had two hundred and seventy rejection slips from agents before I finally won the race. And even then, it took the agent who signed me eighteen months to find a publisher. Back Wilmington 66then, nearly twenty years ago, cozy mysteries were nowhere near as popular and since I wanted to set mine in the Midwest rather than the south, with a curvy sleuth who had an unusual profession, few editors wanted to take the chance on a book that didn’t fit the mold.

In fact, my editor at NAL/Signet/Penguin cautioned me that because my ScumbleMurderCatnapper River series was a regional mystery that would only interest a limited audience mainly in the Midwest. With the first book in its fifteenth printing and the nineteen book, Murder of a Cranky Catnapper, due out September 6, I think she might have underestimated the small-town appeal.

However, there are drawbacks to a long running series. Stagnation is always a risk. As an author, I have to make a concerted effort to allow my characters to change and grow. This means that Skye, my sleuth, has lost cars, houses, and boyfriends. She’s had to alter her goals, expectations, and how Ohio-Rivershe deals with her mother. And most of all, she’s had to mature from a woman who was running away from a life she didn’t want to someone who runs towards the life she does want.

Now that my heroine is married, I’ve been asked if I plan on ending the Scumble River series. But since I don’t think a woman’s journey end when she finds the man of her dreams, the answer is no. I think having a husband and children will push Skye into even more exciting adventures. Bring on book number twenty!

Readers: What do you like about long running series?FB-Denise


New York Times Bestselling author Denise Swanson writes the Scumble River and Devereaux’s Dime Store mysteries, as well as the Change of Heart contemporary romances. She lives in rural Illinois with her husband and big black cat. For more information, please visit her at Or come hang with her at her Facebook group.