The Element of Surprise — Welcome Guest Mary Angela

Welcome, Mary Angela! Mary writes the Professor Prather cozy mystery series. Passport to Murder is the second book in the series. She is giving away a copy to a commenter! Join us in welcoming Mary!

You know the holidays are coming when you buy a new outfit for your Elf on the Shelf. Recently, I purchased one for our elf and her friendly reindeer because “Come on, Mom. They’re a team!” my girls argued. ’Tis the season for waffling mothers, and if there’s one month my kids can talk me into anything, it’s December. They could ask for a chimpanzee right now, and I’d wonder if the zoo was offering a rebate.

Even if you don’t have little kids at home, you’ve probably heard of the Elf on the Shelf. Pinterest has entire boards devoted to this miniature menace: he writes messages, hides in weird places, and often gets trapped. Thankfully, our elf, Cheery Cherry, isn’t nearly as crafty. Sometimes she’s downright lazy after a long day of being creative. Still, she’s a big fan of board games and candy canes and, of course, reindeer. Actually, now that I think about it, the elf and I have a lot in common. First of all, we both fly around the house during the holidays making people happy. Second, we devote much of our time to leaving surprises.

It’s one of the best things I get to hear my readers say: the ending surprised me. I had no idea. I thought it was insert-the-name-of-a-would-be-murderer. It’s like unwrapping a gift every time I hear those words. Human beings are creatures of habit. We get up, we go to work or school, and we go to bed. Rarely does anything shake our routine. It’s no wonder my kids race down the stairs, even on school days, to see what that crazy elf has done. It’s the same reason they race down the stairs on Christmas morning and the same reason we race to the end of a novel: it’s fun to be surprised.

Mysteries should be anything but predictable, and like the elf, I work very hard at creating the element of surprise. It’s the feature of the mystery genre I enjoy most. After teaching English for many years, I love writing a good plot, an afterthought in some of the literary works I teach. My novels are filled with viable suspects and, much to the chagrin of elves everywhere, no tricks. Although I enjoy surprising plots (the Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is my absolute favorite example of this), I always play fair with my endings. I know readers enjoy being surprised, not cheated, by a plot twist. A lump of coal might describe an ending that disappoints. As a reader, I’ve been there. Expecting a sweet treat, you find yourself frustrated by a character who hasn’t been mentioned in the last twenty-six chapters. Oh Christmas miracle! Where did this person come from? Maybe an elf made merry with the pages.

This time of year should be filled with mystery, magic, and happy surprises, like being invited by the Wicked Cozy Authors to guest post on their blog. Thank you so much for having me today, ladies, and thank you readers. It’s a gift to be in your company.

Readers: Do you like surprises? Do you have a favorite?

© Julie Prairie Photography 2016

Mary Angela is the author of the Professor Prather cozy mystery series, which has been called “enjoyable” and “clever” by Publishers Weekly. She is also an educator and has taught English and humanities at South Dakota’s public and private universities for over ten years. When Mary isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with her family. For more information about Mary or the series, go to MaryAngelaBooks.com.

 

Restoring Holiday Joy — Welcome Back Guest Barbara Early

If you like holiday reads don’t miss Murder on the Toy Town Express a Vintage Toyshop Mystery by Barbara Early! Barbara is giving away either a paperback of Death of a Toy Soldier or hardcover of Murder on the Toy Town Express to one of our readers! Welcome back to the Wickeds, Barbara!

Something about the holiday season seems to just generate work. Maybe it’s because I’m not at the top of my game right now, recovering from a nasty bout of infections, five courses of antibiotics, and oral surgery. And trying to promote a Christmas book. Or maybe I’m just getting old. But thinking about all that “needs” to be done between now and December 25th makes me want to cuddle up in my warmest pajamas, climb into bed, and hide my head under the covers until January.

Notice the word “needs” in quotes? When I hit that word, I had a personal epiphany—and yes, I know I’m mixing my holidays. How much of my burgeoning to-do list literally “needs” to be done? Do I need to bake cookies? Do I need to put up all my decorations? Do I need to attempt every cute reindeer craft I see on Pinterest? Do I need to kill myself making the holiday just as magical, plus a little more, than any Christmas I remember?

Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I’ve been emancipated from Christmas slavery.

I don’t have to do anything. I suddenly had a glut of free time on my hands. I could spend more with friends and family. Or I could make a cup of instant hot chocolate, prop my feet up, flip on the Hallmark Channel, and watch heartwarming holiday flicks right up until the big day. Or better yet, read a nice Christmas mystery. Sounded good to me.

But…

And when that little voice sounded, I knew I had to put down the remote and the e-reader and listen.

But…decorating the tree can be fun. And it was true. Putting all the decorations on the tree, making it pretty: it can almost become a form of creative play, much like coloring a picture at the kitchen table. I’ve always been a “Spoonful of Sugar” kind of girl, so stepping back and turning work into a game makes sense to me. Before long, the tree was up.

Because of a couple of very naughty cats, we’ve stored all our fragile and heirloom ornaments, and for the past few years I’ve been putting up a fun vintage toy tree, that goes with my Vintage Toyshop Mystery series. Here’s a video if you’d like to see it. https://youtu.be/ReiIUBYecb0

I still haven’t decided if I will do any more decorating, but I’m going to be careful not to put any the trappings (fitting word) of Christmas on my to-do list. I will not mark holiday success by check marks on a piece of paper. Instead, I can declutter my Christmas using the same one-question method people now use to declutter their homes: does it bring me joy?

For example, baking cookies. Does it bring me joy?

Okay, eating cookies brings me joy, so I might need to whip off a batch of my favorites. Seeing my husband’s face when he realizes I’ve made his favorite also brings me joy. And the smell of fresh baked goods in the house is cozy and comforting. But do I need to make all the different kinds I often make? I certainly don’t need to be eating them!

Setting up the Christmas village. Does it bring me joy? Some, but maybe not enough to warrant lugging three huge totes up the stairs, at least not this year. Maybe next year I’ll set them up in the shape of a Christmas tree. Oh, that could be fun!

Readers, what brings you joy during the holidays?

Bio: Barbara Early earned an engineering degree, but after four years of doing nothing but math, developed a sudden allergy to the subject and decided to choose another occupation. Before she settled on murdering fictional people, she was a secretary, a school teacher, a pastor’s wife, and an amateur puppeteer. After several years living elsewhere, she and her husband moved back to her native Western New York State, where she enjoys cooking, crafts, classic movies and campy seventies television, board games, and posting pictures of her four cats on Facebook. She writes the Vintage Toyshop series and the Bridal Bouquet Shop Mysteries (as Beverly Allen).

http://www.barbaraearly.com/

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBarbaraEarly/

https://twitter.com/BarbEarly

Best of Intentions

Jessie: In NH, where Christmas is sure to be white.

‘Tis the season of gift knitting in my world. Which is to say, nothing is going the way I had planned.I have projects on the needles and others stretched out on racks still damp and drying into shape. I have balls of wool and alpaca and silk rolling round the floor near all my favorite knitting spots as I consider how best to use them.

But mostly I have re-starts and surprises. I love to gift knit for people who value such offerings and I set out to create such tokens every season. One of my sons loves to open such packages. One of my sisters does too. A few friends and even friends of friends are on the list. So each fall I sit down with the best of intentions.

I search for just the right pattern, pick out the ideal yarn and reach for what I hope will be the correctly sized needles. Then I cast on and begin to play with the project by swatching. For those non-knitting readers, swatching is simply knitting a small piece of fabric to check that the needle is the correct size and that the knitter likes the fabric produced. More often than not the needles are too big or too small and the fabric is not at all what I had imagined. So, I start again with different needles. After a few tries it often occurs to me that the pattern is not correct for the yarn or the yarn is not right for the pattern and I go back to the drawing board.

Eventually, if I am paying attention to how the yarn behaves once unwound from the ball and formed into stitches, I manage to match a pattern and yarn in a way that pleases me. I knit along happily, usually at a good clip, and before long I have a completed project in my hands. Which often leads to another problem. I am forever knitting things for the wrong person.

This year I thought a neckerchief of handspun, hand-dyed Blue Faced Leicester wool was for my son’s friend. But the color is more green than turquoise with a defiant tendency towards yellow undertones. I despaired of it until I realised I had been making it for another son’s girlfriend all along instead. It looks perfect for her. I have a sumptious alpaca cowl I thought was for one someone when really it is for another person on my list. I thought a third person was going to receive a hat. They ended up with a scarf instead.

Some of me is aggravated and befuddled by my inability to make plans that don’t go awry. The rest of me is pleased to see how it all works out in the end. It is a lot like writing a mystery. You try out some characters, some scenes and some motives. You end up with plot twists you didn’t see coming and a satisfying ending!

Readers, do you have projects that seem to have minds of their own? Do your gifting plans always go the way you imagine that they will?

 

Opening Lines

Add your opening line for this photograph:

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Liz: From my vantage point on the balcony I watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in the Christmas melee below. I had a clean shot from up here and didn’t want to waste it.

Edith: Christmas, Shristmas. Wait’ll that fake cone-shaped tree pops. The explosion is gonna send everybody divin’ for the deck. They’ll be fishin’ for them hundred dollars bills as soon’s they look up, though. Hey, I’m not the Grinch. They don’t call me Old Saint Nick for nothin’.

Jessie: It used to be easier to arrive unseen every Christmas Eve. But ever since they invented the electric light crowds gather around my sleigh at least five times each night.

Sherry: His first mistake was wearing the khaki pants. They almost glowed in the dark. But that wasn’t really his first mistake, going after my family was.  Hopefully, with luck on my side, it would be his last.

Julie: “Wanna build a snowman” he said. Actually, he sung it to me every time I walked past him in the mall. Buddy, I get that dressing up like a snowman sucks, but really. Really? I’m old enough to be your mother. Listen, I told him to stop, but did he listen? No. But honestly, I have no idea how the surf board display fell on top of him. Surely, you don’t think I have enough brute force to make that happen, do you?

Barb: Busy as I was, I spied the surfboards below as I flew off in my sleigh. “One more day, and you’re on vacation,” I told myself. “Sun, sand, surf, here I come!” Just the pick-me-up I needed to get through the rest of the night.

Readers, give us your opening lines.

Merry Wicked Cozy Christmas!

Holly crown with red bowThe Wicked Cozy Authors wish each and every one of you a warm, safe, happy holiday, however you celebrate it. Our gifts to you are our stories, our guests, our journeys. Your gift to us is reading and commenting on this blog. May you be blessed by family, by food, by the blessing of your choice.

Here are a few Christmas pictures of us.

122012BoysandMomEdith: Me two years ago with my wonderful sons in their new matching sweaters (from their father) and my ritual wearing of the tacky Christmas vest.

IMG_3935Sherry: Merry Christmas from the Harris household! IMG_0598

 

Jessie: Here’s a shot of our origami creche which one of the kids made a few years ago. I just love it!

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Liz: Merry Christmas from the pawsitively adorable gang!

10406630_803190096389728_5263583349669740424_nChristmas

Barb: Aww, the doggie ones are so cute!

Someone's coming! I can feel it. It's gonna be great!

Someone’s coming! I can feel it. It’s gonna be great!

You didn't tell me it was THIS guy. He's terrifying!

You didn’t tell me it was THIS guy. He’s terrifying!

Opening Lines: (Not a Holiday Theme!)

If you’d like a break from holiday craziness, or if your holiday isn’t even the current one, or for whatever reason – take a crack at writing an opening line for this picture. Of course, you can make it Christmasey if you’d like.

handunderbed

Barb: Katrina was peeved to discover that once again the hotel maid had failed to tidy up.

Edith: I was sure I’d stashed that hand somewhere safe. But when I saw my alien friend’s logo painted on the carpet, I knew I was in big trouble.

Jessie: Monica knew their marriage had taken a turn for the worse when Howard began sleeping under the bed.

Sherry: When Tiffany saw the hand she fainted, cracked her head on the corner of the dresser, and blood spurted everywhere. She said she was okay with Roy being a mortician. As he stuffed her in his trunk, after cleaning the floor as best he could, Roy realized they didn’t have the same sense of humor. Fate saved him once again.

Liz: If you’re gonna kill a man, at least do a decent job hiding the body.

Julie: She’d asked for a helping hand in cleaning up the blood stain, but this was ridiculous. She obviously needed to be clearer with the genie when she used her final wish.

Readers: Add your opening in the Reply area!

Wicked Wednesday: Holiday Traditions

We Wickeds have a few holiday traditions, some from our childhoods, some created as adults. We thought we’d share a few.

Liz: I’m a Christmas music junkie. My parents played all the classics during our holidays while I was growing up, and it stuck. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas to me without some Burl Ives or Nat King Cole. Also, opening presents on Christmas Eve. That was my family’s thing – we had our big celebration on Christmas Eve and then the “Santa” presents on Christmas Day – even when we were way past Santa age!

Sherry: One of my favorite traditions came from my childhood. We always have pizza on Christmas Eve. That tradition came about when we were supposed to go to my grandparents farm one year but an unexpected snowstorm stopped us. Mom had cleaned out the refrigerator so it was pretty empty. Pizza Hut was the only place open so that is where we ate and a tradition was born. My mom made the pizza for years and now Bob is in charge.

Jessie: When I was a child my mother gave each of her children an ornament on Christmas Eve each year. That way when we got to be adults with a tree of our own we would each have at least eighteen ornaments to decorate with that would feel familiar and already be imbued with Christmas memories. Now that I am a mother, I do the same with my children. I hope they will continue the tradition with their own families.

Julie: Jessie, I love your tradition! Am a decade behind with the nieces and nephews, but maybe I’ll jump in anyway. Honestly, but only holiday tradition is to watch White Christmas on Thanksgiving. Other than that, I try to spend time with friends and family. And I make apple pies. But the rest? All up in the air since my sisters both had families, and I spend time different places.

Edith: I always make bunches of sugar-and-butter based cookies from my motherOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and my grandmothers’ recipes. But the first Christmas after I was divorced, 12 years ago now, my sons and I decided to make sushi on Christmas Day. No tradition was behind it, but now it’s an important new one that has lasted over a decade. And in Jessie’s tradition, I started acquiring decorative nutcrackers, thinking each son would then have a few for his own home when the time came. A couple of years ago, they said, “Mom, I think we have enough nutcrackers now!”

I also love to put electric candles in all the windows that face the street, and line the doorways with tiny white lights. I leave the window and door lights up into January, long after the tree has come down. It helps to dispel the short dark days of winter.

My son Rob gets a present from Santa in 1983

My son Rob gets a present from Santa in 1983

Barb: One of my favorite traditions is a party my husband’s father’s family has every year on the Sunday closest to The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. It started as a way for Bill’s grandparents to get together with their four boys, their daughter and the cousin they raised, and all their many, many grandchildren around the holidays. Of their children, only one, Bill’s Aunt Mary, now 90, is still living, but the tradition goes on.

One of my favorite features of the party is that Santa comes! My son says he was in school before he realized that not everyone had Santa as a friend of the family and that having him drop in on our family party was very particular and special to us. I loved it because each of the children would give Santa their (often meticulously researched and constructed) list, and that way we had it when it was still early enough to do something about it. Santa then gives them an inexpensive toy, something to “hold them over” until the big day.

Viola and Santa in 2013, with a reassuring hand from her dad.

Viola and Santa in 2013, with a reassuring hand from her dad.

It’s a lesson in patience, because the children have to wait until it’s dark, and then have to sing three Christmas carols before Santa comes, and then have to wait until their name is called to come up. In my husband’s day, Santa, always played by one of the uncles, wore a terrifying mask. Fortunately that had been dispensed with by the time my kids came along.

This year was my granddaughter Viola’s first time with Santa. She sat on his lap and smiled like a champ. I have to admit I cried.

Readers: What’s your favorite holiday tradition? Or the least favorite, which you are obliged to follow anyway?