Wicked Wednesday – Favorite First Lines

As writers, we know how important the first line of a book is. It sets the tone for the whole book and pulls you in (or doesn’t). Some are totally unforgettable. Wickeds, I’m wondering, what’s your favorite first line from one of your books?

WickedFirst Lines

Liz: I still get a kick out of the first line from Purring Around the Christmas Tree
“The whole night could’ve been straight from a 
Norman Rockwell painting, if only Santa hadn’t dropped dead in his sleigh as he rode up to light the Frog Ledge Christmas tree.” 

Edith: I love that one, Liz! Here’s mine from Called to Justice: “The day had seemed an unlikely one to include death.” It goes on to show a sunny festive Independence Day parade in 1888. But I think my most favorite is from my Agatha-nominated short story, Just Desserts for Johnny: “She hadn’t planned on killing Johnny Sorbetto that winter. He had promised her so much.”

Julie: My favorite first line from a published book is from Clock and Dagger, which I wrote as Julianne Holmes. “I was running late. Again.” I love that Ruth Clagan, my protagonist in that series, is a clock maker who is always late. That idea came from my editor, and is genius.

Jessie: My favorite first line from any of my books thus far has got to be my very first from Live Free or Die written as Jessie Crockett. “Beulah Price’s body looked like a hotdog that been left on the grill too long.” It is grim but the protagonist’s voice tickles me.

Barb: My favorite first line in one of my novels is from Fogged Inn. “Jule-YA! There’s a dead guy in the walk-in.” From a short story is it “In the Rip,” in Best New England Crime Stories 2012: Dead Calm. “Phil broke up with me on New Year’s morning as if propelled by the force of some terrible resolution.”

Sherry: This is my favorite from my very first book Tagged for DeathA gun shot sounded. I jerked the phone away from my ear. This time I hung up first.

Readers, what’s the best first line you’ve read or written? Tell us below!

Agatha Nominees for Best Contemporary Novel 2017

Hi Barb here. Since the nominations were announced, the Wickeds have hosted this year’s Agatha Award nominees for Best First Mystery, Best Short Story, and Best Historical. Today we’re bringing you the nominated authors for Best Contemporary Novel.

The Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, honor the “traditional mystery,” and this year’s nominated novels span the length and breadth of the category–from cozy to edgy, amateur sleuth and professional, female protagonist and male, series mystery and standalone. I’m excited to be on this list with some of my favorite authors.

Agatha Award Nominees Best Contemporary Novel for 2016:

Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross (Kensington)
Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books)

Here’s our question for the nominees: Did you know at the outset that your main character was strong enough to carry a book/series? How did this character change as you got to know him or her better?

Ellen Byron: I didn’t know for sure if my protagonist could carry a series, but I knew she had to. I was too in love with the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana – and the real world of Cajun Country – to stop writing about it after one book. What I find exciting is how I’m always discovering new things about Maggie Crozat. A friend who was trying to wrap her head around the amateur sleuth angle of my series once asked me, “Does she see things other people miss because she’s an artist and very visual?” To which I replied, “She does now!”

I’m currently working on the fourth Cajun Country Mystery, and Maggie just shared she’s an only child, and was lonely growing up. This came as news to me because originally I gave her a brother, but then put him on the back burner because he didn’t contribute to the story. I always thought he’d come back someday, but Maggie has spoken. She’s declared herself sibling-free. I feel so close to her that sometimes I forget she’s not real. Those are the moments when I think, “Hmm, might be time to go back to therapy.”

Catriona McPherson: Oh, I wish this was a series! I miss them all now that the book’s done, even though it took me a while to get to know Jude – my heroine – well enough to write about her with confidence. I knew she was a librarian and she lived in London, but I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get the essence of her. She was flat, while all the other characters came to joyous life around her.

Then one day I was writing a scene in the dusty, disordered bookshop where the story takes place and the thought of all the dirt and mouse-droppings and dust-mites was making me feel itchy. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling (different from the itching) and I knew that Jude was a cataloguer who’d given up working on the desk with the general public because she’s a germaphobe and the way people treat library books distresses her too much. I used to work in a public library and I know this from bitter experience. Worst bookmark I ever found in a returned book? Bacon rind. Anyway, germaphobe Jude came instantly alive and the book was plain sailing after that.

But it’s not the start of a series. The story of Jude, Lowell the bookshop owner and the irrepressible pregnant nineteen-year-old Eddy is done. Unless I think of another one . . .

Louise Penny: Initially my main characters were going to be the artist couple, Clara and Peter Morrow.  But as I thought about it more, I could see that while strong secondary characters, making them the center, the core of the series simply would not work, for all sorts of reasons, primary that I was afraid readers, and I, would tire if they had too much of them.

The other reason was that the head of homicide seemed so fully formed when he first appeared and I realized he was the one I needed.  Gamache could hold the series together, and that would allow the secondary characters to shine without the burden of carrying the series.  But he needed to be someone whose company I would enjoy, perhaps for years.  And so I made him a man I would marry, since this is, in effect, a marriage.  As it turns out, far from creating Armand Gamache, I actually transcribed him.  Gamache is inspired by my husband, Michael.

Barbara Ross: When I go back now and look at the original proposal for the Maine Clambake Mysteries, it’s amazing to me how much of Julia Snowden was there. Her family was there–her mother, sister, pain-in-the-neck brother-in-law, and niece were there, as was the still acutely felt absence of her late father. Her parents’ unusual marriage between a summer person who lived on a private island and the boy who delivered their groceries in his skiff was there, too.

This last was particularly important to me, because I am not and would never claim to be a native Mainer, so I needed to be able to write with the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. In her view, her parent’s marriage has left Julia forever on the outside, belonging to neither tribe in her resort town. (Her sister Livvie, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. Which is something that fascinates me, how people can be brought up by the same parents at more or less the same time, yet experience their circumstances utterly differently.)

But there was huge thing I didn’t know at the beginning–how Julia would act and react when put in a series of extraordinary situations. While I had a sense of her character, there was no way to know until those scenes were written. In that sense she continuously reveals herself to me.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: That is such a great question, because it made me examine my choices, and realize I hadn’t asked myself that question at all.

When I began the Jane Ryland books with The Other Woman, that started with a plot. And forgive me, here is a tiny bit of backstory: I had been reading about Governor Mark Sanford, who told his wife and constituents that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail “when he was actually off with his mistress. And I started thinking about why anyone would be the other woman. It’s so destructive in every way. So someone was quoted as saying “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

And I thought: that’s my book.

So I needed a main character to tell that story. And it couldn’t be my first series character, Charlotte McNally, because the story was too big and textured for first person.
But I knew she would be a reporter, a tough, strong, curious, honorable, caring reporter.
And a reporter’s life is all about the search for the next big story. That is natural! So once I decided on “reporter,” it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.

But the fabulous part is how she came to life! Jane Ryland is 33-ish, when the book starts, so 64 year-old me, at the time, could not really draw on my experiences at that age, since that was a million years ago. That made me channel her through a different time…how that age would behave now. And I love how she showed up on the page! Confident, and not self-centered, and a little fearless when it comes to asking questions. Sometimes I am too worried about what other people think, and I was delighted to say she is somehow less timid than I am.

SAY NO MORE has her tackling a very difficult and sensitive subject. Not only testing her responsibilities as a journalist, but her emotional capabilities when dealing with victims and perpetrators of campus sexual assault. She turns out to be compassionate, and caring, and I love how she weighs her responsibility to the subject of her story with her responsibility as a journalist.

Yes, I know I wrote it, but you can’t MAKE a character do something they wouldn’t do. That’s when I know the plot is driving the story, not the character. Jane lets me know when I am doing that—it comes across awkward and “written.” And I think, oh, that’s Hank, not Jane. So when I am lucky, Jane reveals herself to me on the page, and I am so proud of her in SAY NO MORE. (Well, eventually.)

Readers: What do you look for in a character to carry you through a book–or series?

Ellen, Catriona, Hank and I will be at Malice at end of this month. If you’ll be there, we’d love to have you attend our panel, “Simply the Best: Agatha Best Contemporary Novel Nominees,” moderated by Shawn Reilly Simmons on Friday at 1:00 pm. (Or honestly, come talk to any one of us at any time.) Louise, we’ll all be thinking of you!







Wicked Congratulations to Barb, Jessie, and Edith!

Malice Domestic is a conference that celebrates the traditional novel. The Agatha nominations were announced this week, and Barbara Ross, Jessica Estevao, and Edith Maxwell were on the list! The awards will be given out April 29. We’ll all be there, dancing in the aisles.


An Unexpected Accessory: And a Giveaway

by Barb, just back from a beautiful week at the Jersey shore and headed back to Maine

I love it when serendipity happens. Don’t you?

Back in July, Liz Mugavero started a Wicked Wednesday thread here on the blog titled, “What’s in your Character’s Purse?”

totebagI really liked the question, because it was one of those things I had thought about without thinking about it, you know? The question of what my main character Julia Snowden would use as a purse had come up in Clammed Up, the first book in the series. I decided Julia would throw the things she had to carry around with her in an old Snowden Family Clambake tote bag. Julia’s mother Jacqueline had run the gift shop at the clambake for many years, and it seemed natural the shop would offer such a thing.

I thought it would be fun if there was a picture of the tote bag for the blog. So I went on a site that offered custom printed bags and I designed one. Just for the photo, for the blog, mind you. I wasn’t going to order any. I didn’t even price them.

goodiebagsWhy did I know where to find such a thing, you ask? Because for my daughter’s wedding the welcome bags were little, tiny L.L. Bean-style tote bags, which felt appropriate to Maine.

But Liz hadn’t just asked what the character’s purse was, she’d asked what was IN the purse. That gave me pause. I have always been a purse minimalist. When my kids were young, I used to joke, “I am the mother who never carries tissues.” Or Bandaids. Or chapstick. Or photos of her kids.

I think this is because I am an accessories minimalist generally. I have enough trouble keeping track of the essentials, believe me. When I was in seventh grade, the first year I carried a purse to school, everyday the period after my study hall there was an announcement on the PA. “Barbara Ross, please come to the office.” And then I would realize I’d left my handbag hanging off the back of a chair in the auditorium. Every. Single. Day. My husband would tell you this behavior now extends to my reading glasses, my car keys and my phone. He would be exaggerating when he said this. But not very much.

Over the course of the series, Julia has carried some mundane things in the tote bag, like Snowden Family Clambake brochures (Clammed Up) or her mother’s mail, fetched from the post office (Iced Under). She’s also carried some mystery clues, like a copy of an old photo and an insurance report (Fogged Inn) or a priceless diamond necklace (Iced Under).

But what does Julia carry everyday? I decided she was a little less minimalist than me, and gave her “a nylon wallet, sunblock or chapstick depending on the season, a bundle of covered rubber bands to pull back her hair if she’s on a boat or around food prep, and her smartphone, which works pretty well in Maine, except where it doesn’t.” Not a lot of stuff really. I can also imagine a paperback book and a toothbrush and toothpaste in a plastic holder, a hairbrush, business cards, pens and a small notebook.

toteandeggnogAfter I designed that tote bag for the blog, I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I decided to order some for real to use for contests and such.

So that’s what I’m offering, dear readers. If you comment on this blog post before noon on September 1, you’ll be entered in a contest to win your very own Snowden Family Clambake tote, along with an Advanced Reader Copy of Eggnog Murder, the collection of three holiday novellas by Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and me to be published October 25th.

Good luck!







Wicked Wednesday: Mythbusters IV–You Can’t Learn Voice

All writers have heard this–that voice in fiction is the one thing you can’t teach or coach or learn. Authors either have it or they don’t.

But is that true? If we define voice as “the embodiment in words of a distinct personality, style, or point of view,” we can readily see the difference in the hands of a master or a newbie taking their first tentative steps.

So Wickeds, is voice an inborn talent or can you learn it? How did you find, hone, and refine your voice? And for those who write multiple series, books, or stories, either simultaneously or serially, does each one have a distinct voice or are you always, at the end of the day, you?

Delivering the TruthCoverEdith: What great questions, Barb. I wouldn’t dare to say voice is a talent. As one of “those” who writes multiple series, I’m finding that if I know my protagonist well enough, and if I’m truly immersed in her setting, the distinct voice comes through. The voice in my Quaker Midwife series is completely informed by Rose being a Quaker, in 1888, an independent businesswoman, and a curious determined person. And when I write the Country Store mysteries, the voice comes out funnier and more southern. I’m working on a new series proposal now, and am fascinated by how the more I discover about my main character the more true the voice seems.

Julie: Interesting question! I think that there is a certain amount of talent in storytelling that helps set you apart. BUT, like any craft, writers get better with practice. I also think writers get braver with practice, and try out different voices.

ClockandDaggerJessie: This is a tough one! I like to believe everything can be improved in life so I hope voice can be learned or strengthened. We all have a lens on the world, it is just a matter of being willing to share it with a sort of unflinching verve. Perhaps it boils down to learning not to flinch, duck or pull punches.

WhispersBeyond_FixLiz: This is a good one. I do believe everyone has their own voice – it’s a matter of finding it, understanding it and improving it over time. I agree too that a character’s voice is easier to hear and translate if you know that character well enough, as Edith mentioned. Talent is a part of that too, as is lots and lots of practice.

MurdermostfinickySALL MURDERS FINAL mech.inddherry: Some of you know I have an unsold book series set in Seattle with a protagonist who is a gemologist. After it got a lot of rejections, I ended up sending it to a highly recommended editor (not one who reads or has been a guest on our blog). She gave me some homework before I sent the actual manuscript. When I finally sent the manuscript she sent it back and said it had no voice. She added that she knew I had a strong one from my emails and I needed to capture it to be successful. On the one hand I knew what she meant, on the other I was at a loss. Flash forward several years and I got the opportunity to write the proposal for the Sarah Winston books. The beginning poured out of me — I didn’t know Sarah at all, had never thought about her, never imagined a series with yard sales set in Massachusetts. So maybe you don’t have to know a character well to have a strong voice. But I do believe that practice and studying writing will develop stronger skills and make for a better story.

FoggedInnfrontcoveryellowBarb: This is a hard one. I do believe there is a talent involved–some magical wiring in the brain that allows a writer to hear the rhythms of good prose and to, in turn, create it. Just as Good Will Hunting “sees” the answers to complex mathematical problems, or some people can pick up any instrument and pluck out tunes “by ear”, talented writers “hear” good prose. But that’s such a tiny part of being a good writer. My belief is that Voice = Confidence. The confident writer doesn’t flinch, as Jessie says. “Voice” is the sum and total of the storyteller whispering in the reader’s ear, “Come with me. I will take you on an amazing journey. You will see and hear things you’ll never forget. You’ll never regret it for a moment.” When the voice is strong, the reader absolutely believes it–from the first sentence. While for a tiny number of writers that exuberant belief in themselves is innate, most writers have to practice, practice, practice before they achieve that level of confidence.

Readers: Do you believe voice is learned or innate? Which author’s/book’s/narrator’s voices do you love?


How Do Writers Really Feel about Reader Reviews?

by Barb, back in Massachusetts, consumed by a book deadline and an upcoming wedding

FoggedInnfrontcoveryellowThe fourth book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series came out recently, so it’s given me plenty of opportunity to think about reader reviews.

Of course, there is no one way writers feel about reviews. All the Wickeds keep track of traditional media and blog reviews (and are grateful for them), but when it comes to reader reviews, we are all over the map. One of us never looks at Goodreads or Amazon, one of us checks obsessively, constantly looking for new reviews, and the rest fall on a spectrum in between.

To check for new reviews on Amazon, if the number of reviews shown for any book listed on your author page ticks upward, click on the number, then click on See all xx customer reviews, then scroll down and flip the Sort by choice to Most recent.

Yes, you are right, I have just outed myself as the one who “checks obsessively.”

amazon-logo_blackI think the main reason I check so frequently is because my business background taught me to hunger for constant and frequently updated data, and that is something us lay people just don’t get in the publishing biz. Apple can probably tell you within half an hour every iPhone that’s been sold, what the configuration and price was, and who sold it to whom. Publishers claim they can only reconcile book sales after six months, and can only inform authors about it six months after that. I admit it. It makes me crazy.

So I look for data anywhere I can find it, and reviews, especially number and frequency of reviews being added on Amazon and Goodreads, seem as good a proxy as any.

goodreadslogoThis means I read them all. The good ones are gratifying, of course. The less good ones are interesting, too. In every book I try something different, not to be perverse, and not because I am at all bored with the traditional/cozy form, but to avoid repetition and because I believe the tale I’m telling demands it.

For example with Fogged Inn, the book starts with the discovery of the body. The book moves forward in time from there, but Julia goes back to the night before the murder in conversations with people and in her personal reflections throughout the book. So not true flashbacks, but kind of. There are a lot of suspects, because each suspect is really a couple, that multiples the suspect pool by two. Finally, without spoilers, the resolution of the mystery is not a traditional one for an amateur sleuth.

Some readers react well to one or more these elements and say so in their reviews, and some don’t like one or more. Some people hate one or more. I am fascinated with the reactions.

The reviews that are the hardest to read are the ones that point out a spot in a book I know is weak. “Oh, man, ya caught me,” or “Darn, I didn’t paper that over as well as I thought,” is usually my reaction.

And some reviews are just really terrible. People hate the writing style or the protagonist or the story. Just hate it.

People who have never put anything out to the public to be judged often wonder how writers, or people working in any part of the arts or entertainment fields, deal with those “just hate it,” reviews.

Luckily, the “hate it” reviews are usually mixed in with several “loved it” reviews. Sometimes, the book is the wrong genre or in some other way a bad fit for the reader. As Sherry’s daughter says, “You can have the sweetest peach, but if the person you offer it to doesn’t like peaches…”

lbblogoEditing the Level Best Books series taught me how huge a role personal taste plays in people’s reactions to fiction. Us four editors, aside from being of two different genders, were probably demographically indistinguishable from one another from a pollster’s perspective. Yet, there were stories some of us loved and others hated. There were stories people argued passionately for that other people didn’t care about at all. And when we sent our little book out into the world, we were always surprised by which stories were recognized by awards or nominations and which were specifically mentioned in reviews. Honestly, most of the time I guessed wrong about what our standouts would be.

With novels,  it’s really all about the math. The number of reviews is probably a decent proxy for how well a book has sold, and the averages may tell you something about the quality, but the individual bad reviews don’t mean that much. In fact, the more popular a book is, the more likely people outside it’s core audience are to try it. So a book selling tons will usually have a lower Goodreads or Amazon average rating than a book selling only to its niche readers and no farther.

I know as a consumer of movies, when I look at Rotten Tomatoes, I look at average ratings for critics and for fans (and ponder it a bit if one is wildly different from the other in either direction) and base my decision to watch on those averages, not on the individual reviews.

One thing typical reader reviewers (as opposed to book bloggers and others who also leave reviews on Amazon, etc.) may not know is that when you follow reviews as closely as I do, you get to know who some frequent reviewers are, and you’re watching them just as they’re watching you. One man who has left glowing reviews for all the Maine Clambake Mysteries and even went to the Cabbage Island Clambake was disappointed with Fogged Inn. I feel badly about that and hope he stays around for the next book. Another reviewer has trashed every one of my books on Goodreads and vows every time not to read another one. I always think, “Good, don’t,” (despite everything I just said about averages and number of reviews). And yet she returns again and again.

I described these reviewers to a non-writer friend, and he found it creepy and stalkerish, both their interest in me and my knowledge of and interest in them. But I find it fun, and a part of my world. And I’m grateful to have them. Really.

Wicked Wednesday — Trapped!

foggedinncoverWe are celebrating the release of Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross today! Here’s a bit about the book: An autumn chill has settled over Busman’s Harbor, Maine, but Julia Snowden is warming up the town by offering lobster stew at the local diner. When her landlord discovers a dead body in the walk-in refrigerator, Julia must figure out who ordered up a side of murder.

Nothing’s colder than a corpse–especially one stashed inside a sub-zero fridge. The victim spent his last night on earth dining at the restaurant bar, so naturally Julia finds herself at the center of the ensuing investigation. Lost in the November fog, however, is who’d want to kill the unidentified stranger–and why. It might have something to do with a suspicious group of retirees and a decades-old tragedy to which they’re all connected. One thing’s for sure: Julia’s going to make solving this mystery her early bird special…

A group of strangers are trapped together in Julia’s brand new restaurant. So Wickeds have you ever been trapped somewhere alone or with a group of people? What did you do? What about the people you were with?

Julie: I can’t wait to read this book! The only time I’ve been trapped is by storms here in New England. Usually, of late, I’ve been alone in my apartment. In the past, I’ve been with my family. I am overly cautious about being stuck somewhere due to weather and move to shelter as soon as they whisper “storm”. I’ve got to admit, the idea of being trapped freaks me out.

Liz: I’m with you, Julie! I’d much rather be virtually trapped in one of Barb’s books! Anxiously awaiting Julia’s newest adventure – I can’t wait to get back to Busman’s Harbor.

Edith: I’ve been trapped talking with someone who made no sense although I wasn’t really trapped, because I could say, “Oops, gotta get to a meeting!” I’ve certainly been trapped next to someone on an airplane who really, really wanted to talk with me for the whole flight. In that case I just closed my eyes until they shut up. And I felt trapped in my marriage for a few years, but I wasn’t, really. It just felt that way. I also can’t wait to read this installment, Barb! Congratulations.

Barb: My most vivid memory of being trapped was in a glass elevator with both my grandmothers at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens. I hadn’t known until that moment that one of my grandmothers was claustrophic and the other was acrophobic! (No wonder I’m a mess.) During that same trip, we were trapped in the Disney Small World exhibit for about 45 minutes. You haven’t been trapped until you’ve heard those animatronic youngsters sing that song twenty times. I thought my unsentimental parents, who had to be talked into going on the ride in the first place, were going to lose their minds. Years later, taking my own kids on the same ride at Disney World, I experienced flashbacks.

Sherry: I’ve been trapped in the house a couple of times during tropical storms. But I think my scariest experience was during college when a friend and I were driving down Interstate 80 around 10:00 pm and my car broke down. There were no cell phones back then or hazards lights on my 1965 Rambler. We were far from any exits and could only see the lights of one house far across a field. Oh, and it was winter. Every time a semi went by it shook the whole car so we got out and stood on the side of the road. Finally a van pulled over. We were happy and scared. It was a bunch of obviously high guys who were going to a concert in the next town. I gave them ten bucks and asked them to stop at a gas station and send a tow truck. Happily, they did!

Jessie: Like Sherry, my only trapped situations involved a vehicle. Once, I broke down on the side of the highway. I had a job in a retail store 52 miles from my home and it happened after my 11 pm closing shift on a Black Friday. Yes, the day after Thanksgiving. I was wearing all black, a pair of heels and had no warm coat or cell phone. I sat in my car with my hazard lights on for about 45 minutes hoping a police car would stop before I decided to walk to the tollbooth. I had gone only a few feet when a car pulled over and offered me a ride. The driver said it was seven miles to the toll booth. I sent out a little shout to the universe that a sign the guy was a serial killer would be appreciated. When none appeared I climbed in and pressed myself against the door, ready to throw myself out if things got creepy. As it happened, the driver was a really nice man who ended up driving me all the way home. I’ve never left home without a pair of walking shoes and a coat again.

Readers: Have you ever been trapped? How did you deal with it? Let us know!