I Just Can’t Talk to You

by Barb, in Boothbay Harbor on a gorgeous spring day (finally)

I’ve noticed lately that many of my relationships are defined by technology preferences–both my own and those of the people I communicate with.

I am an e-mail person–pure and simple. I’ve written before on the blog about how much I hate the phone. Phone calls require synchronous communication–both people have to be on at the same time for meaningful information to be transferred–which means it interrupts whatever you are doing when the call happens, and I hate to be interrupted. I accept that this is a personality quirk. I hate sudden changes of plan, too. I have the whatever the opposite of ADD is. Also, I hate that when you’re talking on the phone, you can’t see the other person’s face and judge it for comprehension, attention, acceptance and so on.

So I hate the phone. And unfortunately, that has caused many of my relationships with my phone-preferring friends to drift away. I’ve stayed closest to the distant people in my life who prefer my main mode of communication.

To me, e-mail was a miracle. It doesn’t have to be synchronous and, as a writerly person, I have time to craft my message. The pressure is off in all kinds of ways. When we first got e-mail, there was quite a long period, over a decade, when it could only be used for internal communication at work. It was a huge improvement over copying memos and sticking them in people’s physical mailboxes, and later a great way to communicate with far-flung colleagues. Then, miracle of miracles, e-mail moved outside the company so we could communicate with customers, suppliers, investors. Fantastic! My social use of e-mail increased on a pace with my use of it at work.

In a final miraculous step, e-mail appeared on my phone. That formerly loathed device. As a Chief Operating Officer at two higher ed technology companies, Customer Support ultimately reported to me. As you can imagine, our busy season was at the start of the fall semester in the northern hemisphere. From early August when many state college systems in the American south went back to work, through the end of September when the UK universities came online, I was virtually chained to my desk. But when I could follow the long e-mail support threads on my phone to monitor what was going on, I could go anywhere and do anything as long as no real emergency was taking place.

Alas, as with all technologies, the world has moved on. I know that if I send an evite to a family event, I have to text all my nieces and nephews to GO LOOK AT YOUR E-MAIL, because they never check it. My son, in his mid-thirties, was complaining that the youngest member of his Dungeons and Dragons group, in his early twenties, has asked that they not communicate about dates and places for games via e-mail because he doesn’t know how to use it.

And the number of ways people reach out is a problem for me. Sometimes I have to search all over, through my Facebook private messages, my Facebook fanpage private messages, Twitter and Instragram direct messages, and my Goodreads mailbox, looking for a message from a fan I know I want to get back to. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting fan mail, but it always puts me in mind of Drew Barrymore’s lament in He’s Just Not That Into You:

I have learned to text a fair amount, though I’m not good at keeping my phone by my side at all times, which my family finds mega-frustrating. I’ll adapt. I’ll learn, but I think I’ll always default to technologies that support my personality and don’t fight it.

Readers: What about you? Do you have a preferred mode of communication? What and why? Do you find it hard to keep in touch with people who have different preferences? Spill it all here.

A Double Cover Reveal!

by Barb, on her first full day back in Portland, Maine

I’m excited to reveal two, count-em two new covers to you today.

The first is the cover for Steamed Open, Maine Clambake Mystery #7, coming December 24 (or 25–Amazon has one date for the mass market paperback and another for the Kindle version), 2018. Either way, an auspicious date, just in time to cozy up in front of the fire as the holiday madness dies down.

Here’s the description.

It’s summertime in Busman’s Harbor, Maine, and the clamming is easy—or it was until a mysterious new neighbor blocks access to the beach, cutting off the Snowden Family Clambake’s supply. Julia Snowden is just one of many townspeople angered by Bartholomew Frick’s decision. But which one of them was angry enough to kill?
 
Beachcombers, lighthouse buffs, and clammers are outraged after Frick puts up a gate in front of his newly inherited mansion. When Julia urges him to reconsider, she’s the last to see him alive—except the person who stabs him in the neck with a clam rake. As she pores through a long list of suspects, Julia meets disgruntled employees, rival heirs, and a pair of tourists determined to visit every lighthouse in America. They all have secrets, and Julia will have to work fast to expose the guilty party—or see this season’s clam harvest dry up for good.

The second cover is for Yule Log Murder. This is a collection of three holiday novellas, by Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and me, the same trio who wrote novellas for 2016’s Eggnog Murder.

Here’s the description.

Fresh-baked cookies, pies, and cakes can warm even the frostiest Christmases in coastal Maine. But there’s little room for holiday cheer when murder is the new seasonal tradition . . . 

YULE LOG MURDER by LESLIE MEIER
Lucy Stone is thrilled to be cast as extra in a festive period film—until the set becomes a murder scene decorated in blood and buttercream icing. Returning to her role as sleuth, Lucy dashes to restore peace to Tinker’s Cove, unwrap a cold-hearted criminal’s MO, and reveal how one ornate yule log cake could possibly cause so much drama.

DEATH BY YULE LOG by LEE HOLLIS
Hayley Powell’s holidays aren’t off to a very merry start. Not only has her daughter brought Connor—an infuriatingly perfect new beau—home to Bar Harbor, but a local troublemaker has been found dead with traces of her signature yule log cake on his body. As Connor becomes the prime murder suspect, Hayley must put aside her mixed feelings to identify the real killjoy.

LOGGED ON by BARBARA ROSS
Realizing she can’t make a decent Bûche de Noël to save her life, Julia Snowden enlists the help of her eccentric neighbor, Mrs. St. Onge, in hopes of mastering the dessert for Christmas. With everyone in the old woman’s circle missing or deceased, however, it’s up to Julia to stop the deadly tidings before she’s the next Busman’s Harbor resident to meet a not-so-jolly fate.

Kick back with something sweet and indulge in three bite-sized yuletide tales too good to resist!

Readers: What do you think of the covers? I loved writing both the novel and the novella and hope you enjoy them.

Hit Lit

by Barb, winding down her days in Key West

I’m reading a fascinating book called Hit Lit by Edgar-award winner James W. Hall, the author of fourteen mystery novels featuring Thorn, an off-the-grid loner in Key Largo. Hall teaches writing and literature at Florida International University and he was one of Sherry Harris’s first writing teachers. Knowing that, I went to hear him speak at the Key West Library last year.

His latest book is a thriller with a female protagonist and is published by Thomas and Mercer, the Amazon imprint. I found both of these choices interesting–the female protagonist and the publisher. But I found the premise of his book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers even more intriguing. Over years of teaching popular fiction, Hall and his students investigated what elements made a book a mega-bestseller. They took the books apart and put them together again, looking for commonalities and differences.

In Hit Lit, Hall examines twelve of them. None of these books are ordinary bestsellers. Most have sold tens of millions of copies. They are

  • Gone with the Wind, 1936, Margaret Mitchell
  • Peyton Place, 1956, Grace Metlalious
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960, Harper Lee
  • The Valley of the Dolls, 1966, Jacqueline Susann
  • The Godfather, 1969, Mario Puzo
  • The Exorcist, 1971, William Peter Blatty
  • Jaws, 1974, Peter Benchley
  • The Dead Zone, 1979, Stephen King
  • The Hunt for Red October, 1984, Tom Clancy
  • The Firm, 1991 John Grisham
  • The Bridges of Madison County, 1992, Robert James Waller
  • The Da Vinci Code, 2003, Dan Brown

So already the list is interesting, right? Because some of these giant bestsellers are still with us, whereas others I would guess are rarely read. Despite the inclusion of The Da Vinci Code, Hit Lit, which was published in 2012, focuses on bestsellers of the 20th century, which is perhaps why there is no mention of J.K Rowling. Or maybe Hall didn’t think it would be interesting to have his students analyze books they probably already knew well. In fact, there’s no fantasy on the list at all, though The Dead Zone is about pre-cognition and The Exorcist is about satanic possession.

Hall finds twelve features that all these books have. I won’t go through them all, just a few that I found the most interesting.

  • The “protagonists share a high level of emotional intensity that results in gutsy and surprising deeds. These actions may not always take the form of swashbuckling heroics, but rest assured, not one of these heroes or heroines sits idly on the sidelines pondering or strikes endless matches to watch them burn while stewing about the great issues of the universe…Our heroes and heroines act. They act decisively.”

This isn’t much of a revelation and indeed it’s one of the early observations of the book. Almost a gimmee. I’ve thought about this a lot in the context of cozy mysteries. I have noticed in my own writing and in others that once the protagonist commits to the hunt, the book comes alive. Her relentless forward motion drives the same in the book. When I critique manuscripts for unpublished writers the most common issue I see is an amateur would-be sleuth wandering through her day, “observing” things that will later become clues, but not driving the action of the story. These manuscripts are always flat.

The idea of relentless forward motion goes along with Hall’s twin observation about emotional intensity. The protagonists in these books believe in something intensely and are willing to fight for it. We may not agree with Scarlett’s romantic notions of antebellum plantation life, but we get the idea of home and why that’s worth fighting for.

  • These books tell a human story set against a sweeping backdrop. The story itself may be on a small scale–an immigrant family making it in the new world, a young girl coming of age in a small southern town, a top Harvard Law grad starting his first job. But while the story is small, the canvas is big–organized crime, racial upheaval, the “greed is good” ethos of the 1980s.

I thought this was a fascinating observation. It reminded me of a more recent bestseller, Gone Girl. The book is inextricably anchored in the aftermath of the recent recession. Both lead characters are journalists, and junk journalists at that. The dislocation of the move from print media to digital, accelerated and exacerbated by the recession, results in both losing their jobs at the same time Amy’s parents lose their money and hers. Since both main characters are journalists, they knew how to manipulate the media, as it goes through its own changes. Small story. Huge backdrop.

  • The Golden country. The idea of a beautiful home, a beautiful time and an inevitable exile. Tara before the war. Michael Corleone in Sicily. Scout’s innocent summer days with Gem and Dill.

The Eden story is never far away, and all of these books include an element of it. I wondered how, in more recent books, where the action must start right away, authors painted this picture. As Hall tells us, in The Firm, Grisham begins with the protagonist Mitch McDeere’s wife returning to their law school student apartment. He tells her of his great (too great, as it turns out) job offer. They eat Chinese food and drink white wine. This all happens in a few paragraphs. The call back in the book to this Eden is a single sentence, when Mitch says to his wife, “I think we were happier in the two-room student apartment in Cambridge.” It’s brief, but it is there.

In cozies the Eden is our communities before the murder, which may play out in chapters or a half a scene. The murder upends that and the hero must find the snake and chase him out. Though we know things will never quite be the same.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed Hit Lit and may have more things to say on it another time. It’s written in a highly accessible style and packed with examples. At times, Hall really has to strain to prove all twelve books have all twelve elements, but I forgave that because I was buying what he was selling.

Readers: What do you think? Do mega-bestsellers have common elements? Remember it’s not about whether you liked the books, it’s about why they sold.

Cover Reveal and a Timeline Problem

by Barb, who’s enjoying a relaxing time in Key West with fellow Wicked Sherry Harris and her husband Bob

First of all–a cover reveal. Here is the artwork for Yule Log Murder, the holiday novella collection I’m in with Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis coming out October 30, 2018. I really like the cover, especially the effect with skeleton in the yule log cake.

If anything my name is even harder to read than on the first anthology cover, which Amazon, depending on the view, says was written by “Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis” or by “Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and another author.” (Note: There are fewer letters in Barbara Ross than in “another author.” It might as well say, “and another less famous author.”)

I joke, I joke. I really do like the cover.

When Kensington asked me to write the first holiday novella, “Nogged Off,” in Eggnog Murder, I was thrilled. Fortuitously, I had planned a gap between Fogged Inn, which takes place the week after Thanksgiving, and Iced Under, which takes place in February. “Nogged Off,” slid right in, putting Christmas between November and February, as it so often is.

With “Logged On,” my story in Yule Log Murder, I wasn’t so lucky. It will come out after Stowed Away, which takes place in June, and before Steamed Open, which takes place in August. I think I’m even going to slide another book, Maine Clambake #8, in after that, which means Yule Log Murder will be published before Steamed Open and Maine Clambake #8, but will take place after the events in those books.

I THINK I have avoided major spoilers. I hope that dedicated Maine Clambake readers will get a tiny, tantalizing glimpse into the future. Of course, a lot of the readers of these novella collections aren’t my regular readers. They are fans of Leslie Meier or Lee Hollis or fans of Christmas-based stories, or of novellas. So they won’t be bothered by the timeline issues. And a lot of my regular readers won’t read the novella, so they’ll be fine, too.

My biggest challenge is how to position the story in places that give lists of series books in order. I characterized Eggnog Murder as Maine Clambake 4.5, which it truly was. But should I position Yule Log Murder as Maine Clambake 6.5 or 8.5? And do I have to wait until 7 and 8 come out for 8.5 to make any sense?

For those of you who are dedicated series readers, do you have “feelings” about this? Should I address the timeline in the readers’ letter that comes at the end of the novella? (It’s sort of like the Acknowledgments in the books.) How should I position the story?

I loved writing this story. I like working in the novella length and Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday. I hope you enjoy it, too. Whatever order you read it it.

I Write Cozies, Not Cutesies

by Barb, in Key West where it’s been “freezing”–50s at night–and all the locals are bundled up in parkas and –shock of shock–wearing socks!

If you follow me here or in other places, you know I’ve always waved the cozy flag loud and proud. It wasn’t a choice I consciously made, but when I found out my second published novel, first in the Maine Clambake Mystery series, would be positioned as a cozy, I decided to embrace the label and not try to dodge it as I’d seen some other authors do.

The phrase in the title of this post was proclaimed by Jessie when the six Wickeds were together for a long outdoor lunch on a beautiful day in October, discussing the plight of another cozy author. (Important note: Not one of the Wickeds.) Despite years of success, she’d recently moved to a new publisher, as so many have over the past couple of years.

The editorial comments she was getting from her publisher (Important note: Not any of the Wickeds publishers) were challenging to implement, but more important, were insulting to the entire concept of cozies. With every “note” her book was becoming less–less nuanced, less layered, and much less interesting.

We’ve all heard rumors of these cozy “rules” for years, but I had never seen them consciously deployed. To wit:

1) There can only be one body.

2) The victim must be annoying, sneaky or shifty so they “deserve” it. (I reject this one completely. No one deserves to be murdered, particularly not for cutting the line at the Post Office or criticizing someone’s baked goods.)

3) There must be a sidekick and the sidekick must be funny.

4) You can’t have multiple points of view, multiple timelines, or multiple anything besides suspects.

5) The vocabulary must be simple, dead simple. Readers should never encounter a regionalism or understand a word from context.

It seemed like our friend’s editor had a stereotypical idea of the cozy. Worse, it seemed like the people at this publishing house had a condescending attitude toward cozy readers.

It is true that cozies are the comfort food of the crime fiction world. But like good mac and cheese, cozies don’t have to be bland, or made the same way by everyone, every time. And it’s not true, in my experience, that cozy readers read the books because they are incapable of reading anything “more challenging.” They choose to read the books, often in times of stress or simply at the end of a long, busy day. On most cozy online boards when fans discuss the other things they read, it runs the absolute gamut.

So what makes a mystery a cozy?

Those of you who’ve followed me know I don’t like seeing the genre defined by what’s NOT in the books. You know–little swearing, no graphic violence or sex. After all, before I write a word, my books contain none of those things. Yet my editor won’t accept 300 blank pages. There have to be words that add up to a story. It’s true that some readers are specifically looking for the absence of such elements, but most readers are looking for the presence of something, not just the absence.

What are these readers looking for? And, important to my writing journey, what am I trying to do? To say?

The answer came to me as I listened to a podcast where Tom and Lorenzo tried, with difficulty, to describe their love for the movie, “The Big Sick.”

At the beginning of their very positive review, Tom says, “At it’s heart it’s just a light family medical drama.”

But later, after some analysis, responding to Lorenzo, he says, “I feel bad saying it’s light. I think you’re right. I say it, too. But I think it makes it sound like it’s not nuanced. I think when we say light, we mean deeply humanistic. Everyone is afforded some level of dignity and voice. It’s a really pleasing experience for the soul.”

(You can find the entire review here. The part about The Big Sick starts at 46 minutes.)

When I heard this, I thought, “Yes!” Everyone afforded their own dignity and voice. A pleasing experience for the soul.

I haven’t quite achieved that yet, especially the “everyone” part, but that is where I’m trying to go.

As far as I’m concerned, my contract with my readers is this: There will be a crime. There will be a solution. You will want to turn every page. It will be a pleasing experience for your soul.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Readers: Discuss. Cozies. Cozy readers. Reader expectations. The Big Sick. Go!

Stowed Away

by Barb who’s celebrating the holiday in Virginia with family

Hi everyone. I hope you are having great holidays. Today is release day for Maine Clambake Mystery #6, Stowed Away.

To celebrate, I’m giving a signed copy to one lucky commenter below.

In order to keep track of what people may be writing about my books on the Web I have set up Google Alerts for my name, my series name, and my titles. Some of the alerts are nearly useless. Clammed Up and Boiled Over, for example. People are always clamming up, particularly politicians, and boiling over, particularly at sporting events. Musseled Out and Fogged Inn are much better, because of their unique spellings. When I get alerted to one of those phrases, it almost always links to my book. (Usually to a pirated edition, or much more common, some site pretending to have a free electronic edition, but actually phishing.)

So when I started writing Stowed Away, I set up a Google Alert on the title. As I result I regularly receive articles about things that have stowed away.

Some of them are adorable, like this one.

Stowaway Kitten Survives Trip From Massachusetts To Wallingford While In Car Engine
It remains to be seen how many lives the kitten has left.

The kitten was fine, by the way, and was eventually adopted by the auto technician who opened the car hood and got quite a surprise. The little fellow was named Tacoma after the car brand in which he took his ride.

But most of the articles are absolutely horrifying, like this one.

A Giant Spider Traveled 10,000 Miles in a Swing Set
He saw the world, with all eight eyes.

The article goes on to say:
“Like a guinea pig, it was seven inches long and furry. Unlike a guinea pig, it had eight legs.”

The Huntsman Spider survived by eating locusts that had also stowed away, one of many things it eats in the wild, including beetles and small lizards. These spiders don’t spin webs, but get around by cartwheeling or handspringing a yard at a time. Imagine that coming at you. I don’t know if this particular story has a happy ending (or even what would constitute a happy ending). Last seen, the spider had been removed to the Heathrow Animal Reception Center.

Arachnids aren’t the only creepy stowaways. Over the last year and a half I have received dozens of links like these:

Stowaway snake grounds Aeromexico flight – video | World news …
Footage shows snake dangling from overhead compartment…

And this one from my own back yard.

Women in rental car find 4-foot snake stowed away in trunk
A ball python gives them a scare as they remove their bags after arriving at an inn in Kennebunk.

The article continues:

“The women, who drove Wednesday from Logan International Airport in Boston to an inn in Kennebunk, found a ball python when they arrived and were taking their bags from the car’s trunk.

Kennebunk Deputy Police Chief Dan Jones said officers responded to the Port Inn on Route 1 after getting the call.

‘As calls go, this one was pretty strange,’ he said.”

BTW, if you want to hear a good stowed away story of this ilk, ask the Wicked’s own Liz Mugavero next time you see her.

I’ll keep the alert active, even though stowed away promises to be as ineffective in spotting mentions of my book as clammed up and boiled over are. I have to admit, I kind of like these stories. They’re compelling and repelling at the same time.

Readers: Do you have a story about something that stowed away? Share it here, or just say hi to be entered to win a signed copy of Stowed Away.

Ode to Trash Cookies

The winner of A Passport To Murder by Mary Angela is Cozynookbks! Please send your contact information to maryangelabooks@gmail.com

by Barb, who’s finished her Christmas holiday baking

In the 1960s, my mother had a challenge. Her annual Christmas cookie baking resulted in ten unused egg whites. Unwilling to throw them away, she searched for a recipe that would use them up. The first year she made actual coconut macaroons, shaped like wreaths with red food coloring bows and green leaves. I thought they were beautiful and delicious (I still love macaroons) but in a couple of days they were hard as rocks. Since my mother did her Christmas cookie baking in a flurry in one day (as I do), then stored the cookies in tins and doled them out for gatherings and parties all month, that wasn’t going to work.

Then she found a recipe for “marangoons.” These tasty concoctions were pure 1960s cooking. (Even the Google won’t find a recipe for me now.) The egg whites are beat with confectioners sugar, and then cornflakes, shredded coconut, and chocolate chips are folded in. The resulting mess is dropped by spoon onto cookie sheets and baked.

That was the recipe that stuck. My mother called them “trash cookies.” They were meant to use up the egg whites and to maybe help fill out a plate full of cookies, but other than that her disdain for them was total. They were the very poor relations of the more refined rolled and cut cookies, the butter cookies and the hazelnut wreaths, which were tons more work, required more expensive ingredients, and most important, a more discerning palate to appreciate their subtle flavors.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, always declared the marangoons her favorites. She seemed to believe her love of the cheapest cookies somehow made her a more virtuous person. Just as my mother’s snobbishness about the marangoons tells you something about her personality, my mother-in-law’s vocal embrace of them tells you something about her.

The cognitive dissonance was a little much for me, but I rolled my eyes at both of them and went on.

The truth is, the marangoons don’t last all that long or travel well. Nonetheless, when I became the primary cookie maker in the family, I would ship a tin full of all the different kinds of cookies to my parents. “I don’t know why you even include the marangoons,” my mother would say every year. “They’re stale when they get here.” But I continued to include a few, which tells you something about my personality.

My husband, in keeping with his personality, has tried to upscale the trash cookies. Really good chocolate chips do make a difference, but fancy coconut was terrible and the organic free-range cornflakes he bought at Whole Foods turned into a sodden mass. Better to stay with Kelloggs. I told you it was a 1960s recipe.

I lost the actual recipe a few years back, and by then what I was doing bore only a passing resemblance to the original directions.

I made half the usual amount this year, because I’m doing some of my cookie baking with my granddaughter in Virginia later in the month. Here is how I made the marangoons.

Ingredients

5 egg whites
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 12-ounce bag of chocolate chips
1 7-ounce bag of shredded, sweetened coconut
1/2 the contents of a 12-ounce box of cornflakes.

Instructions

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites, adding the confectioners sugar gradually until it is a gooey mess. Fold in the cornflakes, then the chocolate chips, then the coconut, mix thoroughly.

Drop by the spoonful onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Readers: Do you have a recipe that is like a poor relation that came to stay?