It’s a Smelly Business

The winner of Murder on the Toy Town Express is Kay Garrett. Barbara Early has your email and will be in touch!

By Sherry who is enjoying the Christmas lights around the neighborhood

Barb Goffman recently gave me a gift. The box says on it: No place like home. What could this be?

I opened the box and found a candle. One that purports to smell like Iowa, my home state. And I thought what the heck does Iowa smell like?

My first thoughts were a little dark: the Oscar Myer and Purina plants in my hometown, pig farms, fertilizer, the Mississippi River on a hot summer day.

But as I thought more about it other smells came to me: lilacs, the smell of ozone before a summer storm, laundry drying on the line outside, the scent of musty books and wood in the old library before they tore it down, lumber from a new house being built, mud in early spring, a pile of leaves.

It make me think about the tie between memory and scent. Every time I get a whiff of Brut aftershave (which isn’t often anymore) it’s like time traveling back to high school and remembering a boy I liked. A few years ago I bought a tube of Revlon lipstick. When I got home and opened it I thought, Mom. Who knew my mom smelled like Revlon lipstick when I was growing up?

Writers are always told to use the five senses when writing. The candle was a great reminder of the power of smell. Each of us have our own response to smell. I hear people talking about the lovely scent of just cut grass. All I think is, achoo because I’m allergic to grass. I don’t like the smell of coffee brewing either (I know, I know – it’s some kind of character flaw). But ah, a cup of Earl Grey tea – heaven.

Using the sense of smell can connect readers to a character. It can tell us something about their personality. If they hate the smell of bread baking, maybe it’s because of a bad relationship with the baker. If they love the smell of roses, maybe it’s because their grandmother who provided a safe haven for them. On the contrary if they hate the smell of roses maybe they had an abusive partner that gave them roses after abuse.

But back to the candle. I’ve had a cold ever since Barb gave me the candle so until yesterday I didn’t light it. The candle came with a card that said this: There’s no place like home. From agriculture and the Holliwell Bridge to John Wayne and the world’s largest wooden nickel. Our Iowa scented candle will have you feeling right at home with the scents of the Iowa State Fair, including the sweet butter cow. The Hawkeye State! Iowa sweet Iowa.

I had to look up the Holliwell Bridge. It was used in the filming of The Bridges of Madison County. I’d never heard of those bridges until the book came out in 1992 and I’d long since moved from Iowa by then. I also hadn’t heard of the world’s largest wooden nickel. It was erected in 2006 as a protest against county officials’ decision to raise speed limits in the area. Iowa resident Jim Glasgow spent more than six months creating the giant sixteen foot wooden nickel, which weighs about 4,000 pounds. (In my research I also discovered that San Antonio claims to also have the world’s largest wooden nickel. But theirs is smaller. Go Iowa!) And I confess I’ve only been to the Iowa State Fair once, to see the group Chicago, when I was in college. I’m not sure butter cows and sculptures were even a thing back then. (If you want to know more about the butter cows watch the movie Butter. It’s a hoot.)

So…what does the candle smell like. I lit it and waited, hoping my nose wouldn’t fail me. And now drum roll please…it smells like butter cream frosting. It’s a lovely scent which I will enjoy even if it doesn’t smell exactly like Iowa to me. Now I’m curious what candles from other states I’ve lived in smell like. Here’s the link in case you want a candle of your own. https://www.etsy.com/search?q=no%20place%20like%20home%20candles

Readers: Is there some scent that takes you back to a pleasant memory? One that you don’t like?

Back to School

By Sherry — I’m just back from spending time with the Wickeds in Massachusetts. We had so much fun doing a panel at the Milton Library with Hallie Ephron moderating.

For our Thankful for Our Readers giveaway I’m giving away a set of all four Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries to one commenter. Leave a comment for a chance to win!

Recently a Facebook friend asked me if I would talk via Skype to three classes of sixth graders in New Port Richey, Florida. They are taking a creative writing class. I said yes and then immediately regretted it because I was afraid I didn’t have anything interesting to say.

I gave myself a talking to (okay, many talking to’s). I told myself it would be fine, that I could handle a bunch of sixth graders. The morning of the event as it got closer to the time of the first class, I remembered the advice of author Linda Barnes at Crime Bake. She said pacing and twirling your arms around would disburse some of the adrenaline flowing through your body. I did that. Then I remembered something Julie said about voice exercises so I shook my jaw back and forth saying something like blub, blub, blub. It wasn’t pretty.

Minutes later, there I was, a big giant head via Skype and a classroom full of kids staring at me hopefully. I didn’t want to let them down. I introduced myself and the kids had a bunch of questions for me. So here are some of the things we talked about.

Who does the covers for your books? I told them that Kensington has an art department and that my editor asked me for input. I was the one who suggested having a tag on the cover. The art department did it beautifully.

How much money do you make? Enough to live comfortably in a cardboard box under an overpass. I explained that most authors either have a day job or a partner who supports them.

How did you get published? I explained that the usual process was to write a book, find an agent, and the agent would sell your book to the publishing company. However, in my case my editor at Kensington had the idea for the series. He went to an agent looking for someone to write the series. The agent went to Barbara Ross and asked her if she knew anyone who could write the series. Barb knew I loved garage sales. She knew I’d been writing and studying the craft for a long time. Barb asked me if I wanted to give it a whirl. I told her I’d think it over but when I woke up the next morning my first thought was: Are you nuts? Of course you have to try. Four days later I turned in a proposal for the series.

How long do you have to write your books? I had nine months for the first three and six months for the next four.

Who was my favorite writer and my favorite book? Oh, that one put me on the spot. But I went with Julia Spencer Fleming and her book In the Bleak Midwinter. I told them that her sleuth was a former helicopter pilot who was now an Episcopalian priest. We talked about how those two things created conflict. And then I paraphrased her first line to avoid swearing: It was a terrible night to throw out a baby. (The actual line is: It was one hell of a night to throw out a baby.) The kids gasped when they heard the line. The teacher planned to use the line as a writing prompt and promised to send me some of their stories.

We also talked about their favorite books and authors.

What advice do you have for us? Don’t give up. I have stacks of rejection letters and it took me a long time to get published. Read the kind of books you want to write. Study writing. I still take classes and read books on writing. When you are older join organizations like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.

Do you get writers block? I don’t believe there is such a thing, It’s fear, fear you aren’t good enough, fear this book won’t be as good as the last book, fear you have nothing to say – you do. When I get stuck I do what author John Dufresne recommended – look around – what does your character see, hear, smell? Write it all down to get them moving again – most of this will be thrown out.

We did a writing exercise that turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our time together. Who is your main character? What are three things they love and three things they hate? What is their favorite smell? Where would they go on vacation? Where do they never want to go?  When the kids finished they took turns coming up to share their answers. Then we talked about how they could take all those things to create conflict. One girl’s sleuth wanted to vacation in the Grand Canyon, but was afraid of small spaces. We talked about how her sleuth could go to the Grand Canyon and get lost in a cave. We went on with other students and what they could do with their answers.

As usual with these things, I worried for nothing. And I’m pretty sure I learned more than they did! Let me just add, god bless the teachers. I was exhausted after three classes — I don’t know how they do it!

Readers: Is there something that makes you nervous that turns out okay? Or just say hi if you don’t have a story to share!

The End or Is It?

NEWSFLASH: CozyNookBks is the randomly selected winner of Linda Lovely’s book! Check your email – she’ll be contacting you. And congrats!

By Sherry where summer temperatures have returned even after Barb warned me if I put socks on last weekend it was the end of summer.

I see posts on Facebook all the time where an author happily announces that they just typed “The End” for their latest book. I have a confession. I’ve never typed it myself. I’ve obviously finished books, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to type those two little words.

Maybe I’m superstitious about it for some reason. I remember hearing author John Dufresne say at readings he won’t tell people what page he’s reading from because he might change the wording to make a sentence better as he goes along. And I always wonder when in the process other authors are typing “The End”. After the first draft? The sixth? The twelfth? Right before they turn it into the publisher?

I know my first draft isn’t the last one so it doesn’t feel like the end. It might be because even after I send it off to my editor at Kensington I know I’m going to get the copy edits which gives me another chance to polish the manuscript. And boy is there a lot to polish every time I get them back even though I feel like I’ve turned in a clean manuscript.

Even after the copy edits there’s that one final chance when the page proof comes. At this point the book has been type set and along with the page proof comes a warning to change only what is absolutely necessary. And that if you make too many changes you may have to pay for it. Gulp. At this point I’m pretty much making sure the punctuation is correct and words are spelled correctly. I might clean a bit here or there, but I always worry that I’ll do too much.

Maybe I don’t type “The End “because I don’t want it to be over or I think there’s more I could have done. Trust me, the minute I sent in the copy edits for I Know What You Bid Last Summer on Tuesday, I wished I had them back to read through them one more time.

I think in the end (pun intended) that typing “The End” is to final for me. Instead of a satisfying triumph it’s more about questioning if I did enough. Maybe it’s that insecurity that so many writers carry around with them that someone is going to point and yell “fraud”. Or maybe it’s like telling someone I love goodbye when I don’t want to. It could be part of the whole letting the story go out into the world where it will be judged, loved, hated, remarked on, or ignored.

I imagine typing “The End” sometimes. I’d do it with a bit of a flourish like when you finish playing something stirring on the piano and lift your hands from the keys. It would be in a great font. And then I’d delete it because I’m superstitious.

Readers: Do you type “The End”? When do you type it? And if you aren’t a writer do you ever have a hard time knowing when a project is finished?

That Was A Close One!

By Sherry — feeling fortunate

A couple of weeks ago I helped author Donna Andrews with a yard sale. It gave me a chance to put my money (or Donna’s in this case) where my protagonist Sarah Winston’s mouth is. Garage sales are a lot of work and in this case Donna had things from her grandparents and parents along with things of her own to sale. The picture below is while we were setting up. You can read Donna’s take on the event here!

What do you want to accomplish? The first thing I asked was what was more important, making money or getting rid of stuff. Donna was more interested in getting rid of things than making money. The reason to ask that is for pricing and bargaining the day of the sale.

We got together a few days before the sale to price. Donna had already arranged a lot of like items together in her garage. There was so much stuff we decided not to individually price things (even though Sarah usually does). Donna made signs for things like albums $1.00, glassware $2.00, etc.

Vintage Jewelry Donna also had a lot of vintage jewelry. We used box lids with towels in them to arrange the jewelry. A friend of Donna’s who sells jewelry had been over to take a look at things to make sure nothing was too valuable. As we arranged the jewelry I would flip it over to look for signatures. Also to see if there was backing on the jewelry – that is usually a sign there aren’t gemstones set in the piece. I took some of the pieces home to check prices on eBay. Below is an example of the backing from a brooch I bought last spring at a sale:

Open! The weather the day of the sale was perfect, not too hot and a gentle breeze – almost unbelievable for August. Garage sales make for interesting people watching and become a study in human nature. Yes, we had early birds. The starting time was 9:00 but by 8:15 we were open for business. Donna did scare one woman off at 7:45 when she told her she could look around as long as she helped carry out a few boxes.

Patterns Donna had stacks of patterns from the forties, fifties, and sixties. I’d looked up prices on eBay and thought she’d probably have more luck selling them there. But we stuck them out anyway. We sold one. However, so many people stopped by to look at them. And it was lovely how many people told me stories of their moms or grandmothers making clothes. It was one of the best parts of the sale for me.

Hipsters Two young men came by who were interested in the albums Donna had for sale. She had nine boxes with everything from rock to Irish folk music to classical in them. The hipsters were interesting to watch because first they sorted through the albums in the garage setting asides ones they were interested in. Then they brought them out into the light and took the album out of its cover to look for scratches. After that they made their final decisions about which ones they wanted. At $1.00 a piece they were a great bargain. One of the guys said he loved Irish music because he could jig around the house to it. The image of this bearded hipster doing a jig still makes me laugh.

Culture clash Northern Virginia is a very diverse area but twice now I’ve seen how cultures can clash at a yard sale. A woman was looking a jewelry and had made a little stack to one side. Two other women swooped in and tried to crowd her out. They immediately went to her little stack. I intervened and explained that was spoken for. Then I bagged it up for the first woman. Since she was still shopping I took the jewelry, put it in a box with some other things she wanted, set the box to the side and covered it.

About fifteen minutes later one of the women brought me a couple of bags full of costume jewelry and asked me how much. I was holding one of the bags and flipping it back and forth to see what all was it in. All of the sudden the woman blurted out, “It’s her bag” and points at the first woman. Then she said, “I took it from there” and points at the box where I’d set it. A confession – if only Sarah could get information so easily! I rolled my eyes and took the bag back over to its spot.

Oh, boy. So here is my confession – Sarah would be so upset – it’s the big one that almost got by me. A woman was looking at the jewelry as I was hovering nearby. She holds a necklace up and says, “This is a Victorian mourning necklace.” I take it from her, flip it over, and sure enough there is this amazing woven hair. My first (and continuing thought) is how the heck did I miss that when I was looking through the jewelry?!!!!

I told her I’d have to look up a price. On eBay similar pieces were selling from $50 to $600! And those pieces only had a swirl of hair nothing like the intricate piece I was holding. Plus I wasn’t sure Donna would even want to sell it. When Donna finished up with the person she was talking to, I took it over to her and explained the situation. Of course she didn’t want to sell it! Fortunately, the woman understood. If I hadn’t been standing right there or if she hadn’t said anything it would have been gone for a couple of dollars. Ugh, I’m still upset!

All of us go to garage sales to find a treasure for next to nothing. But that was a close one!

The End By the end of the sale, Donna had made some money and gotten rid of some things. What didn’t sale was sorted into piles to give away or sell on eBay. Garage sales are a lot of work, but you can also learn something unexpected.

Readers: What in your life has taught you something unexpected?

Cliffhangers — A Love Hate Relationship

By Sherry enjoying unusually nice summer days for August in Northern Virginia

Almost everyone my age will remember the summer of “Who Shot JR” from the TV show Dallas. JR (a nasty, manipulative man) is shot, but the audience doesn’t see the killer and had to wait until the fall to find the answer. I don’t even remember who the killer was, but I do remember all the speculation.

The first cliffhanger I remember in fiction was in a Janet Evanovich novel High Five. At the end of the book Stephanie Plum calls a man and asks him to come over. He shows up, but we don’t know if it’s Joe or Ranger. I remember getting to the end and having mixed emotions about having to wait a year to find out. You can bet I bought the next book in the series as soon as it was published.

Shows from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead to Friends to Downton Abbey have ended seasons with cliffhangers. And authors such as Susan Collins (Hunger Games series), Stephan King (Dark Tower series — readers had to wait six years for the next book), and J.K. Rowling have all ended books at a suspenseful moment.

There is some disagreement about what a cliffhanger is. Some people think it’s any ending that leaves an unanswered question which means books like Gone with the Wind, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Gone Girl are books with cliffhanger endings. To me those endings seemed more ambiguous than cliffhanger. While researching cliffhangers I came across a Pub Crawl blog by Erin Bowman. You can read the full blog here. She makes a distinction between hooks and cliffhangers. It resonated with me.

One of the reasons cliffhangers are on my mind is because of how my fourth book, A Good Day to Buy, ends. The reaction to the ending has been interesting. People either enjoyed it or hated it – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. I wrapped up the crime, but I didn’t wrap up Sarah’s relationship woes. When I started writing the book it wasn’t with the idea of ending it with a hook big or small. It just came about naturally as I wrote the book. Sarah has a big life decision to make. I didn’t have room for another 20,000 words to resolve it. And I’m not sure seeing every little details of her though process/angst would make for interesting reading.

People are passionate about the topic. If you search “cliffhangers” you find lists of books and TV shows. One list on Goodreads is: Ending That Make You Want To Scream.

Novelist Charles Reade said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Readers: How do you feel about cliffhangers or hooks at the end of a book? Have you ever used one in your writing? How did readers react?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repurposing

By Sherry — how is it already July?

One of my favorite things to do is take something old that I’ve found at a garage sale or antique store and do something different with it. So it’s no surprise that Sarah Winston from my books does the same thing. It also made me think about repurposing life experiences for books — more on that in a bit. Here are some things that I’ve found a new purpose for:

I love old utensils with wooden handles, but only buy them if I can think of a way I would use them. I thought these dough blenders would be great for holding vintage postcards or photos. When I posted a picture of them on Facebook, Edith said they’d also be great for holding recipes.

I found a wooden trivet at a garage sale but thought it would look pretty on the wall.

When we lived in Monterey I found a little bookcase at an antique store in Santa Cruz. It first housed my collection of cobalt glass but now holds my collection of vintage tablecloths.

I found this old wooden box at a garage sale and fell in love with it. It might be from a library but I use it to store bookmarks and business cards.

This Victorian breakfast tray was at a show called The Big Flea. With the help of a couple of books it became a tiny end table.

I found a piece of vintage fabric at an antique store in Fort Walton Beach Florida. It wasn’t very big but my mom lined it and made it into valances for me.They hang in my office.

This old trunk was in my grandparent’s basement. My sister restored it and gave it to me. It now houses cds and albums.

I spotted this old cranberry scoop at an antique store in Annapolis. It now holds the newspaper.

It’s so much fun to do this and I realized I do that a lot in my writing too. One example is the opening and part of the plot from Tagged For Death the first book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I was sitting in an airport a few years ago and a guy was pacing around near where I was sitting while he talked on the phone. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation and thought some day I’m going to use that. I also used a crime that occurred when we were stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in the plot of The Longest Yard Sale. There are so many ways to draw from life experiences and repurpose them in writing.

Readers: What have your repurposed in your life?

 

Thinking about Thinking Scenes

By Sherry — I’m enjoying a cool day before the heat hits again

I confess my WIP (work in progress) is a bit of a mess. No, it is a mess. It’s due in to my freelance editor, Barb Goffman, on Sunday. Even scarier it’s due to my Kensington editor on August first. It’s the sixth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I’ve been thinking (maybe overthinking) a lot about writing which may be part of the reason for the mess. I recently wrote about trying to improve my writing. You can find that blog post here.

Part of my problem is I had a deep emotional connection to A Good Day To Buy (number four in the series). Number five, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, felt a bit lighter to me. It has a lot of crazy, complex relationships that can occur in small towns where people sometimes know each other to well or think they do. And I love the subplots – I had so much fun writing them. Book five also answers some questions readers have been wondering about. But after A Good Day, it didn’t seem to have the same depth to me. Maybe I’m crazy saying all of this out loud. Maybe I’m tilting the reader pool to not like the book. So don’t get me wrong, I like the book, I just had a different emotional connection to it.

That brings me back to my WIP. I was having the same problem of connecting with the manuscript on an emotional level. Then combine that with some obsessive thinking about writing  and it wasn’t pretty. One of the things that’s been on my mind is black moments and I wrote a recent blog about that for Miss Demeanors. You can read it here.

I moved on from worrying about black moments to worrying about what I call “thinking scenes”. (I feel like these scenes are different than inner dialogue, although inner dialogue can be part of thinking scenes.) Then another thought struck me — aren’t thinking scenes the opposite of show don’t tell? Ugh. In a mystery it is almost unavoidable to not have the protagonist trying to put the pieces of a mystery together. So then I started pondering ways to do that.

A protagonist thinking…

One way is to have your character sitting on the couch, driving down the road, or walking some place thinking about what they know and what connections there might be.

Another, that I often see in mysteries, is having your character involved in some activity while they are trying to piece the puzzle of who dunnit together. For example Sarah could be refinishing a piece of furniture as she thinks about a murder.

Writing all this makes me realize why sidekicks are so popular. The sidekick allows the protagonist to talk it out. The sidekick can point out flaws in the protagonist’s logic or point something out that sends the protagonist in a new direction. They could also cause the protagonist to doubt themselves.

I’ve used all three in different ways in different books. There are probably a gazillion other ways to handle thinking scenes, but these three seem to be the most common. And maybe the best solution is to weave the clues together so well that the protagonist doesn’t have to have a thinking scene and only needs an “aha” moment.

Back to my messy WIP. The good news is two days ago I came up with a subplot that speaks to me on an emotional level. Now I’m working hard to weave it in as an intricate part of the story. Wish me luck!

Readers: Do you like scenes where the protagonist is putting the pieces together? Writers: Do you have a way you like to handle these kind of scenes?