Stirring the Plot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing the cat would stop walking across the keyboard so I can write already...

Hey, Wicked Friends! It’s hard to believe another month has gone by and it’s my turn to do some blabbing on the blog. I hope you all had a lovely September. I think I did–it went by in a blur for me!

Yes, we have a uniform. No, I can’t tell you what MTB stands for. We are sworn to secrecy.

I’ve spoken before about the wonderful retreats I and my writer friends go on several times a year. One of my posse has a gorgeous Vermont ski house that sleeps a dozen people very comfortably–and believe me, when this all-female group is at its largest, those 5 bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms come in handy!

Today I thought I’d tell you about an aspect of these retreats that you writers might be able to apply to your own groups (and I sincerely hope you all have at least one teammate in your dugout, because it is NOT easy going it alone). Our main focus is always our plots–and we always collaborate. But here’s the thing: we write in different genres. And each genre has its own set of expectations. Depending on who can make it to the retreat, we may have writers working on mystery, Amish romance, steamy romance, urban fantasy, paranormal, women’s fiction, young adult, or even middle-grade chapter books.

That’s a pretty big range. So how is it that a mystery writer can help plot a shapeshifter novel?

First, we have all known each other for years, are close friends, trust each other implicitly, and are familiar with each other’s work. So we have an innate sense of what will fly and what will not fly for any particular author. The corollary to this is that we have a tacit agreement that anyone can give any opinion without fear of the recipient taking offense. This is huge. Without this kind of trust and honesty, the group simply doesn’t function. We all understand that we are not there to pat each other on the head and say, “Good job!” (although we give lots of support) We are there to make everyone’s story the best it can be. And sometimes that means tough love.

Second, we respect the process. Our retreats are structured so that we have both group plotting time and personal writing time. We rarely deviate from our routine, because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Our hostess has an MBA, and she keeps us on track if we start to veer off topic. Depending on the size of the group, we have one or two plotting sessions. We sit around her big table, and the writer who is “it” gives us a nutshell version of her story. Sometimes we exchange story premises beforehand, but usually we just wait until we get there, and then listen. The woman at bat may have just a nugget of an idea, or may have most of her plot worked out but needs help ironing out details. She tells us what she needs, and we start firing questions and ideas, which leads to more questions and ideas, and very soon a plot takes shape. It’s frightening, sometimes, how fast it comes together with that many creative brains working in unison. We can usually plot an entire book in a half hour. And then we move to the next.

Third, we all understand the basics of good fiction: compelling characters, a memorable setting, plenty of conflict (both internal and external that moves the story along), a clear goal for every character, which also moves the story, setbacks/failures, a logical and exciting climax, and a resolution that satisfies in some way. These basics cut across genre lines. (Literary fiction is its own thing–but it’s not our thing, LOL!, so I’m leaving that out of this discussion) So if one or more of these element is weak in the story we’re plotting, we can identify it and come up with ways to strengthen it.

And fourth, we understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The questions that the women’s fiction writer asks of the young adult writer are quite often something the YA writer might not have considered. Different perspectives make for fresh, innovative stories. And creative energy feeds on itself. It gets faster, bigger, and badder the more it’s nurtured.

What about you? Do you have a friend or colleague you can be completely honest with, whether you’re a writer or not? Can you take constructive criticism without getting offended? Who are your MTBs?

 

 

It Never Gets Old

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, enjoying a cool breeze and a hot cup of coffee…

This week I’m ecstatic that my fifth novel, A KNIT BEFORE DYING, is now out into the world. You’d think I’d be less excited this time around, but nope! It’s just as fresh and new and amazing and scary as when FETA ATTRACTION released a couple of years ago. I can say, though, that I think this one is the best, most complicated mystery I’ve ever done. Shhhh! It’s my favorite among my book children, even though we’re not supposed to play favorites, right?

So to celebrate the new book and the approach of autumn, when soft yarnish things and cozy mysteries are exactly what we need to settle ourselves in for the months ahead, I’m giving away two copies of the first book in the series, YARNED AND DANGEROUS. 

Just leave a comment below, telling us either what book(s)you’re reading now (if you’re like me, you have several going at once), or tell me about your pets. Brownie points if you’re reading a book by a Wicked or a Wicked Accomplice, or you own or have owned a tuxedo cat, but neither thing is required, LOL! The giveaway closes at 11:59 p.m., EST, on August 31, 2017. Good luck, and big hugs to all you wonderful writers and readers!

 

The Writing Mascot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing I was at the beach…

Hey, Wicked People! Hope you’re all enjoying your summer. I can’t believe it’s half over and I haven’t even been on vacation yet! I am going soon, though, to a lovely lakeside cabin in Vermont for a week. I’ll be leaving my day job (which I love, love, love–seriously!) behind, but I’ll be using part of the time to do some focused writing on a scary project in a new-to-me genre.

Now, I have lots of writer friends (and yes, I know how lucky I am).Some of them use a ritual to get themselves into Writer Mode, like turning on a special type of music, lighting a candle of a particular scent, or simple deep breathing. I’ve never quite found any of these things to be as helpful as just sitting my butt in the chair, rereading and surface editing the work I did the day before (I don’t go back further than that lest I am tempted to go back to the beginning and edit, which would mean I’d just be stuck in an endless loop and never produce any new material). But I know a ritual works for some.

Others have a mascot. My romance writer friend Stefanie London has a stuffed llama. Another romance writer, Regina Kyle, has a toy manatee (named Romanatee, which is the best name ever). And Toni Kelner has Sid the Skeleton. These items have taken on lives of their own, and they are great conversation starters with readers, too, when carried around at conferences.

So, a couple of years ago, I was spending a fun afternoon lunching and shopping with another friend, Kensington author Gail Chianese. We stopped in at an Irish imports store, and I saw an adorable stuffed sheep. I said, “Hey! There it is! My new writing mascot.” I proceeded to buy it. And it has sat on my desk ever since, but even though it’s cute, I never really bonded with it. The unappreciated little girl? guy? doesn’t even have a name.

Now my day job is at a subscription-only publisher of cozy mysteries. And one of the series I work on (the Amish Inn Mysteries, if anyone is interested) features a very, very lazy English bulldog named Beans. At a recent team meeting we were all given a Beans Facsimile. So he also now sits on my desk. I still don’t find him particularly inspirational, maybe because of the aforementioned laziness. But still, I like having him there better than my poor sheep.

Do you have a mascot? A totem? An inspirational ritual? Any crazy thing that gets you motivated to do what you need to do? Also, if anyone wants to suggest a name for Sheep Incognito, I’m all ears.

A Bowl of Cherries

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, wondering where June went…

I don’t need an astronomer, or a calendar, or standing stones to know when the summer solstice hits. I’ve got my own personal predictor: the sour cherry tree we planted a couple of decades ago. The cherries are plump and green and just beginning to ripen by the longest day of the year. And by July 4th, they’re all done.

 

Anybody who’s ever been a gardener might know this feeling. You watch the plant’s progress, from dormancy, to blossoming, to fruiting/vegging and ripeness, eagerly awaiting the perfect time to pick. And then the time comes for the first harvest and it feels satisfying and wonderful.

Some years, like last year when we had a late spring freeze that decimated our fruit trees (we have two pear trees as well), we get only a handful. And other years, we get a bumper crop and manage to stay one step ahead of the birds. This is a bumper crop year. So the picking begins.

As does the pitting. And preserving. The thing about sour (pie) cherries is that they are extremely perishable, which is why you almost never find them in grocery stores. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen any at a farm stand. They must be picked then within hours pitted and preserved or they develop an ugly brown and untasty ring at the stem end. So I have to pick at a time when I know I can do the follow-up work–pitting each individual fruit, then immediately cooking up with some sugar or freezing, to be cooked with sugar later.

Sour cherries are delicious–but they’re inedible until they’ve been properly prepared.

And I feel like that’s a metaphor for writing. Like those cherries between the solstice and Independence Day, ideas come fast and furious sometimes, and some of them will ripen into something wonderful. And some I’ll never get to, because they’re for the birds.

Today, and for the next few, there is no more time for profound thoughts. There are only endless bowls of cherries to process into jam, barbecue sauce, and future pies while binge watching Frankie and Grace on Netflix. But maybe, just maybe, during the repetitive motion of the pitting, a sweet little idea for the next story will emerge. We’ll see.

Do you grow any of your own food (or flowers)? Are there certain types or varieties you plant or harvest every year?

My Big Pile of Books

Jane/Sadie/Susannah here, gearing up for a weekend filled with family, friends, and memories and wishing the same for all of you …

All the talk this week about desks and what we read outside the cozy genre makes me want to combine the subjects. I have a big ole pile of books, which is currently parked on top of my roll-top desk, where I do my day job as well as much of my writing work. Now, this is not my only pile of books (puh-leeze), but it’s the one I look up at most days. Here’s a sample of what’s up there:

The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass

The India Fan, Victoria Holt

Caroline: Oxbow’s American Bonaparte, Ethel Comins

Hope Blooms, Jamie Pope

The Rain Sparrow, Linda Goodnight

Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge

Our Fans’ Favorites, The Stratton Mountain Boys (this is a CD of traditional German music that we play during our Oktoberfest meals–not sure why it’s there!)

Murder in Chelsea, Victoria Thompson

Pregnesia, by Carla Cassidy

Crazy times, I know. I’ve also included in the picture a couple of other fun things, including my work mascot, Beans the bulldog, a snow globe from my hometown, and an official bottle of Vitameatavegamin from the Lucy and Desi museum.

What’s the craziest thing on your desk?

 

 

While the cats are away…

EDITED TO ADD: The winners of the two advance reader copies are ASHLEY CATE and TOMEKA. Please contact me through my website, http://www.sadiehartwell.com and let me know where to send your books. Thanks, everyone, for playing along!

Jane/Sadie/Susannah here, holding down the fort while the other Wickeds and Accomplices are at Malice Domestic…

This will be my second year in a row missing the cozy-fest known as Malice Domestic. Last year, I was in St. Louis at a robotics competition with my son. And this year, because I started a new job, my vacation time was limited. But you can bet I’ll be cheering on all the Wickeds in the quest for the elusive Agatha Award!

So while everyone else is gone, why don’t we have some fun? I just got a box of advance reader copies of A KNIT BEFORE DYING, book 2 of the Tangled Web Mysteries that will be releasing officially on August 29. And I think today would be a pretty good day to give a couple away, don’t you?

Here’s the blurb:

A new business might add some much-needed charm to downtown Dorset Falls—and draw tourists to Josie’s yarn shop. But when someone gets murdered, a close-knit community could come undone . . .

Shop owner Josie Blair is finally settling into the pace of living in Dorset Falls, Connecticut. Between running Miss Marple Knits, jumpstarting a blog, and handcrafting items with the help of her knitting pals, Josie’s too preoccupied to worry about her past in New York. And thanks to Lyndon and Harry, the owners of the brand-new antique shop next door, she has another project in her midst—repurposing a box of vintage crocheted doilies adorned with the most curious needlework . . .

But before Josie can formally welcome her neighbors, she discovers Lyndon on the floor of his shop stabbed to death by a rusty old pair of sheep shears. Police have pinned Harry as the killer, but Josie isn’t so sure. Now, she’s lacing up for another homicide investigation—and no eyelet or stitch can go unexamined, lest she herself becomes ensnared in the criminal’s deadly design . . .

Leave a comment below, telling me what your favorite thing to do is when you have a free morning or afternoon all to yourself, and I’ll choose two winners randomly. Good luck!

Edited to add: You must comment by 11:59 p.m. today, April 27, to be eligible to win. Winners will be posted tomorrow, so check back.

Being a Tourist

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, wishing I had a clone … 

Not to worry, Wicked People. The bloggers here have not switched from cozy mystery to sci-fi, LOL! I’ve just been super busy.

But not too busy to take a few days with my husband and son, who was home on break, to go to New York City recently. Despite the fact that I only live a couple of hours from the city, when I want an urban experience I usually go to Boston. But New York is fun too–and it’s full of the exact kind of touristy stuff I lo-o-o-ve to do. So what are some of the things we packed into our 4 days?

The Statue of Liberty, of course. We weren’t able to get pedestal or crown tickets (tip: request them WAY in advance), but just walking around the island and listening to the audio tour was incredibly inspiring. Looking up at that green goddess, and really thinking about what she means, and seeing a whole lot of other people from a whole lot of different countries sharing my awe with respect and peace–well, the experience brought tears to my eyes. Not to get too political here, but seeing Lady Liberty up close gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, everything isn’t too broken.

 

Another stop on the trip? The Empire State Building. It took a long time to get through the ticket line, and then a long time to get through the security line (seriously–it’s like going through airport security. It was the same at the Statue of Liberty), but the view from the top, both from the enclosed 86th and open 102nd floors, was worth the wait! We were there on St. Patrick’s Day, hence the beautiful green lighting. Observant sleuths will note that this photo could not have been taken from the Empire State Building, because it is of the Empire State Building. This is actually taken from the Top of the Rock, the observation deck on top of Rockefeller Center. No celebrity sightings at the Rock, unfortunately.

And probably our favorite place? The Museum of Natural History. We spent about five hours there–we could easily have spent a few more, and if the new mummy exhibit had been open, we would have! Night at the Museum fans (secret confession time: I have a crush on Ben Stiller, but alas, no celebrities at the MNH either), these pictures are for you.

Museums and cultural attractions depend on our support–especially the small ones. I never, ever come away from a museum without at least one new creative idea, and it’s usually a lot more than that.

So…when was the last time you took in a tourist attraction? Or a museum near your home that you’ve never visited, or haven’t in a long time? Any places you can recommend?