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.


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.


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?

Weird Hotel Stories from Crime Bake

by Barb, who is soooo tired after attending the New England Crime Bake

Thankful for Our Readers Giveaway: I’ll give an advance reader copy to one lucky commenter on today’s blog.

I’ve just returned from a weekend with my mystery community friends at the New England Crime Bake, my hometown conference. It’s learning experience, a reunion of old friends and a chance to meet new ones.

I was reflecting that I’ve had a couple of weird experiences at the hotel when I’ve been at Crime Bake. (You’ll see why in a minute.)

The first one was in the hotel when Crime Bake was in Dedham, MA. The conference occupied pretty much the entire hotel on Saturday, but on Sunday other groups would come in as we were leaving.

One Sunday mid-morning when I got on the hotel elevator there was a single woman already on it. She was exotically beautiful and dressed in a bright pink bridesmaid gown, which looked fabulous on her.

In her hands she held a dyed-to-match pair of strappy high-heeled sandals, a dyed-to-match clutch purse…and a big red brick.

We’d ridden up two floors before I could hold back no more. I asked her what the brick was for.

“The bottoms of the bridesmaid shoes are slippery,” she said. “The brick is to rough them up.”

Perfectly logical, right? But somehow that image of the beautiful woman, in an elevator, dressed in a gown, carrying a heavy brick, has stuck in my head. Who is she? Who is she going to meet? And what is going to happen?

This year when I left Crime Bake, I was greeted by this sight.

A huge pile of gym bags on a luggage rack with doll arms and legs and skulls sticking out.

It’s creepy, amirite? It reminded me of the doll parts in Hallie Ephron’s You’ll Never Know, Dear.

Of course, a little Googling tells me these are Baby Annes, dolls used to teach CPR for infants and babies. Note: Not to infants and babies.

Obviously this guy wasn’t into packing them up neatly. But even when they are packed neatly, they’re still kind of creepy.

It’s a perfectly logical explanation, but my writer brain can’t help but imagine…

Readers: Tell us about something funny or creepy you saw in a hotel. Or just say hello to be entered for a chance to win the ARC of Stowed Under.


Where are the Wickeds at Bouchercon Toronto?

by Barb, who is already in Toronto

Julie suggested a three word post for today, “In the bar.”

Four of the Wickeds, along with Wicked Accomplice Sheila Connolly, will be in Toronto this week for Bouchercon, the World Mystery conference. It’s true, you will find us in the bar, and we love seeing old friends and meeting new ones in the “white space” of a conference, when there’s no agenda and no program to pay attention to.

But you can also find us in particular places at particular times and here they are:

Wednesday, October 11, 1:00 to 6:00, Sherry, Edith and Barb will be attending the SinC into Great Writing, Alex Sokoloff’s workshop, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, sponsored by Sisters in Crime National. (Pre-registration required.)

Thursday, October 12,

  • Noon to 4:30 pm, Edith and Barb will be at the autographing free books at the Kensington Hospitality Suite in the Grand Ballroom Foyer. Sherry will make a couple of cameo appearances, though she’ll also be attending the Sisters in Crime national board meeting. We’ll be giving away glasses cases and micro fiber cleaning cloths. Come and see us.

  • 2:30 to 3:30 pm, Sheila Connolly will be on the panel “Comfort Reading,” these authors keep the stakes high while their books read like a warm blanket, with Cheryl Hollon, Joe Reese, J.R. Ripley (Marie Celine), Marty Wingate and Elizabeth J. Duncan moderating, in Sheraton A, with a signing immediately after in the Book Room.
  • 7:30 to 9:30 pm, we’ll be at the Opening Ceremonies, paying extra close attention to the announcement of the winners for the Macavity Awards. Edith is a nominee for Best Historical.

Friday, October 13, 8:30 to 9:30 am, Sherry Harris will be on the panel, “Write What You Know,” how like authors are their characters? with John Burley, Susan Furlong, Nick Kolakowski, Dr. L. J. M. Owen and J.T. Ellison moderating, in Sheraton B with a signing immediately after in the book room.

Saturday, October 14,

  • 7:30 am, we’ll all be attending the Sisters in Crime Breakfast, (though Barb will be sneaking out early to go to her panel) in the Grand Ballroom East. (Reservations required.)
  • 8:30 to 9:30 am, Barbara Ross will be on the panel, “A Recipe for Death,” cooking up culinary mystery plots, with Leslie Budewitz, Maya Corrigan, Suzanne Trauth,  and Linda Wiken (aka Erika Chase), and Mo Walsh moderating in Sheraton B, and signing immediately after in the book room.

Sunday, October 15,

  • 8:30 to 9:30 am, Julianne Holmes/J.A. Hennrikus will participate in “Thespian Readings,” author reads a section of their own work, then another reads it as a
    character-actor, with Kimberly G. Belle, L.A. Chandlar, R.J. Koreto, Catriona McPherson and David A. Poulsen moderating in Grand West and signing immediately after in the book room.
  • 9:30 to 10:30 am, Edith Maxwell / Maddie Day will be on the panel “Medical Mysteries,” lives are at stake with these stories, often in more ways than one, with Colin Cotterill, Alec Peche, Christine Poulson, Melissa Yi, and Wendy Walker moderating, in Sheraton C and signing immediately after in the book room.

If you’re at Bouchercon, please say hello. If not, never fear, Liz and Jessie will be holding down the fort, though they’re each having adventures of their own. (I’ll let them tell you those stories.)

Readers: Will you be at Bouchercon 2017? Have you ever been? Would you like to go?