Theme as Character

By Sherry where summer in NoVA is heating back up and I’m hoping it preps me for New Orleans next week

themeascharacterI’ve thought a lot about themes in cozies and what part they play in a book. I’m making a late addition to the post — in this case when I say theme I’m talking about what could also be called the hook of the series and sometimes the occupation of the character.  I realized that theme should be like a character. Before you throw your hands up and think, “The people who think setting is a character are nuts, so this girl has gone completely crazy”, bear with me.

What does a character do in a story? If it’s the protagonist they drive the story, if it’s a minor character they help move the story along, the antagonist impedes the story. Revelations come about and the protagonist’s personality comes through her interactions with the other characters. Is she kind, cranky, suspicious? How she interacts with the theme also reveals character to us.

In my books Sarah goes to and organizes yard sales. She meets lots of different types of people and we find out she’s kind, but stands up for herself. She’s thoughtful but spontaneous. The theme lets us see she loves a bargain, she’s clever, and after a difficult divorce in book one, resourceful. It’s a good way to use that old adage, show versus tell.

what-if-there-wasnt-a-theme_Characters and their voice is what makes us fall in love with a book, it’s what makes us stay with a series, it’s why we root, or get mad, or cry, or laugh. A well integrated theme will do all of those things too. It’s a hook but if it’s done right it’s such an integral part of the the story that it doesn’t stand out as theme but blends as character. It should be important enough to the story that if it was gone, it would feel like a character died. The reader would miss it.

So far Sarah has gone to yard sales, set up New England’s largest yard sale, organized a February Blues yard sale on an Air Force base, and organized smaller yard sales for clients. In All Murders Final she starts a virtual yard sale. Each one of these types of yard sales plays out in a different way. Like a character who is difficult as opposed to one who is overly helpful.

As with any character you have to make sure not to go over the top with your theme. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if Sarah finds clues at the yard sales she goes to. So far the answer has been no — for two reasons. First, it would be a huge coincidence if Sarah did find a clue at a yard sale she went to. Writers have to be very careful with coincidence or readers wouldn’t find the story plausible. Sarah did overhear a conversation at a yard sale in Tagged for Death, but without other things happening the conversation wouldn’t have been important. Second, I want to make things hard for Sarah, just like when she questions someones and they lie or just don’t answer. A yard sale that yields too much would make her life too easy. Some day Sarah might find a clue at a sale but it will have to be carefully integrated.

So readers what do you think? Do you have a favorite theme?

Wicked Wednesday: Practical Beauty

ClockandDaggerWe’re continuing our celebration of Julianne Holmes’ Clock and Dagger with our thoughts about clocks. Civilization wouldn’t be what it is if they hadn’t been invented. Imagine the chaos if we couldn’t agree on the time, and even if we agreed, couldn’t tell what time it was right now.

But today, we have blinking digital reminders of the time all around us–on every appliance and device. What time it is, you ask? Let me glance around the room. More than ever, clocks are becoming art forms. While this has always been true, now they must provide us with beauty and happiness to find room in our homes.

Wickeds, is there a special clock in your life? Something from an ancestor or a gift? Something you possess now or remember from your childhood? Tell us about it.VeggieClock

Edith: I have a sweet clock in my office that I love. Hugh had given it to his parents, and we
brought it home after his father died. We also have a vegetable clock I’m very fond of. Right now, for example, it’s a zucchini past onion. Despite all the digital clocks, I always first glance at the analog ones to check the time.

Sherry: I love clocks and since Julie started writing the clock shop mysteries I always notice them. (She’s probably tired of me texting pictures of clocks to her!) Here are some of my favorites:

The first one is from my grandparents farm in Novinger, Missouri. The flyswatter clock came from the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The second hand has a little plastic fly on it. One of my daughter’s friends almost took it out when he saw it move over his shoulder. I found the little alarm clock at a yard sale recently.

Liz: I love my zen alarm clock. I bought it years ago when I read somewhere that waking Zen clockup to shrill beeping or blasting music isn’t a good way for your brain to start the day. The zen clock chimes when it’s time to get up. It starts off with one chime, then the more you ignore it, it begins to chime more frequently. You’re still not going to sleep through it, you’ll just wake up a lot more peacefully.

picture of a shelf clock on a bookshelfJulie: One of the best things about writing this series is the clock research. I fall in love with clocks all the time. But the clock on the right? That is the clock my grandmother left me in her will. It is a little beat up, and electric. But it reminds me of her, and I love that I have it. I fine most folks think of clocks as more than just timepieces–they are also memory portals.

Jessie: My brother-in-law, John, has made several clocks for my household. He tailors them to individual interests of the people in the family. When my first book came out it was the debut in the Granite State Mysteries series. He very thoughtfully crafted a clock for me from pink granite cut into the shape of New Hampshire. It makes me smile every time I glance at it.

boothbayclockBarb: I have several clocks back in Massachusetts that have meaning for me. One is a mantel clock my parents gave to my husband and I when we first bought a house that had a mantel. Another was one that sat on my grandparents’ mantel for many years. But since I’m not home, I took a look around the house in Maine. Most of the contents belong to my mother-in-law including several clocks. I found this one. Sherry Harris, it looks a little familiar.

Readers: What about you? Do you have a clock you cherish, for its beauty or the memories it brings?




Opening Lines

We continue to celebrate The Longest Yard Sale today. Write an opening line for the photograph below:

IMG_3496Jessie: I’ve got a real good deal for the discriminating taxidermist.

Barb: I’ll be right with you as soon as I tidy up.

Julie: What part of “No Early Birds Allowed” was unclear?

Sherry: That guy didn’t know a bargain when it hit him in the face.

Liz: He shouldn’t have tried to walk off with Grandma’s quilt.

Edith: I told him the shovel wasn’t for sale.

Readers: Add your opening line!

Wicked Wednesday: Spring Cleaning

Before we get into our Wicked Wednesday topic, we wanted to announce the winners from Chrystle Fiedler’s recent guest post! Penny Marks and Shannon Malloy, message us your addresses on Facebook and Chrystle will get your books right out. Now back to spring cleaning….

Spring is a relative term here in New England, but we think it is a safe to put away our winter jackets. Maybe. But with open windows and changing of clothes comes spring cleaning. Wickeds, what  do you do for spring cleaning? Anything writing related? Readers, chime in with your favorite seasonal switch routines.

Julie: I have definite spring rituals. The gradual putting away of cold weather gear, though I always carry gloves and a scarf with me–you never know. I change out my curtains, and my comforter cover. Regarding writing–I get a real boost of energy. I suspect it is because I can go out and walk, and it isn’t miserable. Spring is my day dreaming season–so glad it is here!

Edith: Opening the windows. Planting my vegetable garden. Hurrying to apply anti-tick asparagusstuff on the cats. Putting away flannel sheets and bringing out smooth cotton ones. And this year exulting in the three-year-old asparagus bed finally yielding a pound every other day. I don’t change out much besides sheets and wool coats, because with the see-saw in temperatures – swinging from 85 to 50 and back, and back – the shorts and the scarves have to coexist. Oh, look, there’s the first mosquito! For writing, I find nice weather way too distracting. Have to chain myself to the desk.

Jessie: When the temperatures start to warm and the birds start to sing, I feel the need to lighten up on possessions. I go through all the closets and dressers and pull out the things to donate to charities. I clear books I won’t re-read and I sort magazines into the recycling. I even put off trips to the grocer and plan menus that use up all those things that keep getting shoved to the back of the pantry. By the time summer arrives I feel like my house is ready for the most laid back season.

Liz: Spring shopping, of course! Which I was tremendously successful at this past weekend. And finding pretty new spring shoes. But also purging old clothes to donate, like Jessie, and general decluttering.

Barb: I do many of the same things. Changing out my clothes and donating things that weren’t worn over the last season, taking coats to the dry cleaner and putting them away. I change some of the household the decor seasonally–little things around the place that signify the season. I’d love to be cleaning out drawers and cupboards, but the last two years I’ve had a book deadline June 1, which has interfered with the heavy lifting. Next winter will be tough, with deadlines January 15 and March 1, but the spring will be glorious!

IMG_3488Sherry: Well, I feel like a slacker. I don’t have any rituals or routines. I did take a lot (and I mean a lot) of papers to a local shred event last weekend. But to me spring means an opportunity to go to garage sales!


Readers– what are your favorite seasonal switch routines, and does spring affect your work?

Yard Sales We Have Known and Loved–Or Hated…

Tagged for Death mech.inddThis week we’re celebrating the launch of Sherry Harris’s Tagged for Death. Which brings me to the question Wickeds, have you ever held a yard sale? With family, neighbors, a common group like your kids nursery school? Did you love it or hate it? Were you enriched or depleted? We want to know…

Jessie: I’ve never held a yard sale or a garage sale. We simply place things out near the side of the road with a sign stating “FREE” and that usually gets us all cleared out. I haven’t been to a lot of garage sales as an adult but I did go on many trips to the flea market as a child and I always loved it. I think the sense of adventure and that it is really a sort of treasure hunt is a big part of the appeal.

Edith: While I was a farmer and home with my kids, money was tight for a while. We lived on a busy state route, so we held a yard sale (which we call garage sales in California) one Saturday. We made a few hundred dollars off the stuff we no longer wanted or needed and it did help the coffers. I put out some “hippie” skirts from an earlier era in my life, and my husband at the time put out a few African shirts he no longer fit. The high school girl across the street snapped them up. Perfect! The down side is the end of the day: getting rid of what doesn’t sell. As Sarah is so good at in Sherry’s book! The FREE sign is useful.

My town holds a town-wide yard sale at the end of June and my Friends Meeting participated for a few years, but it ended up just being too much work so we stopped. Sherry, come up on up next June! I avoid shopping at yard sales now, because I have too much stuff as it is…

yard-sale-day2Liz: I’ve held a few yard sales over the past couple of years, not because I love to do it, but because I couldn’t think of a better way to get rid of years of accumulated stuff that was just too nice to be tossed in the trash. I have to admit, I got kind of into it – the setting up, the bartering, and best of all the sales! The worst part? Having to pack up what’s left after a long day. And every time I do one, I swear whatever’s left is going to charity, but there’s this little voice that says, Maybe just one more…

Julie: When I moved out of my old house into a condo, I planned a yard sale to get rid of stuff. Of course, it rained, so I had to have the yard sale inside. A challenging day, mildly put. At the end of it, I had a friend come by with a van, and I donated everything I hadn’t sold to a charity she worked with. In my theater life, yard sales help fill prop lists and furnish actor housing. And, of course, I’ve been to Brimfield, which is worthy of its own post.

yard-sale2Barb: Every year we used to have a yard sale with my husband’s brothers and sisters and their families. We lived on a busy street, so it was always at our house. My sister-in-law was an artist’s agent, and just like our agent gets copies of our books, she got copies of everything her artists licensed. It was a treasure trove of china, table linens, stationery, trays, waste paper baskets, rugs, all brand new. She drew people in, who often then bought from the rest of us. Her stuff was so popular, sometimes when I’d be working in the yard, people would pull up and ask me when that year’s sale was.

We’ve moved since then, and we try to be better at culling stuff throughout the year instead of saving it for the yard sale. I look back on those days as long and exhausting, but very happy, leading to a treasure trove of family stories.

IMG_4096_3IMG_3976Sherry:  I would have loved that yard sale, Barb! I’d love to go to your town’s yard sale, Edith! Brimfield sigh — I’ve never been but want to go, Julie. I grew up in a family that donated our old stuff instead of selling it. But when I was in second grade my best friend’s family had a yard sale. I went and soon ran home to grab some things to sell. I quickly sold a jar of marbles and some comic books and I was hooked. I confess, going to them is a lot more fun than throwing them. I try to collect small things now like the “H’s” in the picture but I have a hard time resisting small tables and chairs.

Readers: Have you held a yard sale? What was the best or worst thing about it? And as an aside–what do they call them in your neck of the woods? Tag sale? Yard sale? Garage sale? It’s all fodder for Sherry!

Wicked Wednesday: Writes of Passage

writesofpassageIn 2013, when the wonderful Hank Phillippi Ryan was President of Sisters in Crime, she decided her legacy would be a book of essays. The idea was that writers would share their experiences, reach out and support one another like a warm and comforting embrace.

Working with co-editor Elaine Will Sparber, Hank reached out to members of Sisters in Crime all over the country, from every corner of the genre and at all phases of their careers. The result is a little book called Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, that contains sixty essays (#60secrets) where writers tell it like it is. The central message of the book is, “You are not alone.”

Writes of Passage is now available from Henery Press in paper and ebook form, at all the usual outlets.

Several of the Wicked Cozies have essays in the book. We thought today we’d each pick an essay that spoke to us from the collection.

Barb: I laughed out when I read Lori Roy’s essay, “Hard Work and Working Hard.” In it, she talks about how the hyper-organized style she learned as a CPA has never worked in her fiction writing. She can’t write from an outline and research is piled haphazardly around her office. The essay reminded me of the book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, by John Curran. (I write about it here.) You’d think Dame Agatha, Queen of Plot, would have been strictly organized, but Curran writes that Christie “thrived mentally on chaos, it stimulated her more than neat order; rigidity stifled her creative process.” But Lori’s essay made me laugh out loud because I had just said to my husband that my former profession as a Chief Operating Officer was the worst possible preparation for mystery writing. As COO, my job was usually to unkink the kinks and find the straightest line between two points, to take the obscure and make it transparent. Applied to mystery writing, the result would be a one chapter book. “A guy was killed. It was obviously so and so. He was swiftly arrested. The End.” I struggle against that impulse every day.

greyhowlLiz: So many of these wonderful essays resonated with me, but as many of you know, I have procrastination issues. So Clea Simon’s “The Zen of Procrastination” spoke to me loud and clear. Her simple truth is also mine: “Somehow, as the deadline for each new book approaches, I find myself caught up on the most mundane of household chores – and then belatedly bashing out the prose at eight, nine or ten o’clock at night.” I struggle with this too, although I can – and often do – excuse my procrastination by citing the demands of my day job, but it’s the same difference. What I liked about this essay is Clea’s attempts for a Zen acceptance of her methods, such as the working out of the plot hole during the laundry cycles. I, too, am trying to be kinder to myself if I feel I have to do something instead of write at that exact moment, and channel the time more productively at least in my mind. So while I often say I’m working hard at being a reformed procrastinator, perhaps I should embrace that part of me and use it to my advantage, as Clea seems to!

Barb: I liked that one, too, Liz. I often say I am an overachiever trapped in a procrastinator’s body. But a little perspective is good. Clea publishes two books a year and you have a big day job..and…and…and. So kindness is called for.

Edith: It’s absolutely a book full of valuable advice and experience. Susan Oleksiw’s essay tells how she helped found two small presses. With the Larcom Press, which published the Larcom LarcomReviewCoverReview (and gave me my first full-length short story publication credit for “The Taste of Winter“) as well as several mystery novels, Susan says she and her co-editor didn’t know how to run a press, and she describes how they learned. She then went on to co-found Level Best Books, which is going strong even today, although under new management (including Barb!). Her essay ends with a paragraph that very much resonates with me: “My philosophy was, and still is, that if there’s something you want to do, just throw yourself at it. Whatever happens, you’ll know more than when you started, you’ll be closer to your goal, and your discoveries will open unexpected doors.” I agree, and have done this myself a number of times in my life.

NeverTell20Sherry: How could I not pick Hallie Ephron’s essay “I Get My Best Ideas at Yard Sales”? Sure I wanted to read it because I’m writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series but I loved Hallie’s novel Never Tell A Lie. The idea for the story came to her at a yard sale. I’ve also been in a number of classes taught by Hallie so I knew I’d find some good advice in her essay. Reading that a writer like Hallie gets stuck makes me feel better when I get stuck. Getting stuck happens it’s what you do about it that matters. Hallie says this: I’ve now written nine novels. My best ideas for getting unstuck seem to come to me when I’m frying chicken, or taking a shower, or driving, or going to a yard sale. In other words when I can’t write. So my advice for thinking your way out of a plot hole is this: After you’ve tried every technique in the book for writing your way out of one, step away from the keyboard.

Jessie: I really liked the essay Wabi-Sabi Writing by Kylie Logan. Basically, it spoke about mindfulness and the appreciation of things that are fleeting and imperfect.  Everything about that idea spoke to me as a writer and as a person who tries to find joy in the little things that make up a life. This attitude of acceptance and pleasure in the unfolding of what is, into what will be, is extraordinarily freeing on so many levels. It is exactly how I keep my inner editor at bay and how I convince myself to take risks of all kinds. I was delighted to find there was actually a name for that approach and that it wasn’t just a form of sloth. Ever since I read Kylie’s essay I have been chanting wabi-sabi to myself as I sit down to write, to cook or even to tidying the house. Thanks, Kylie!

Julie: I love this book. I am thrilled to be part of it, but would love it no matter what. I think there is an essay for every mood, and every writer’s need. It is really hard to pick one, but that is the task. I’m going to chose Diane Vallere‘s “What Are You Looking For?” It is about searching, and exploring the unexpected paths. Terrific essay. Great book. And fabulous legacy project for the wonderful Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Readers, have you read any of the essays? Do you have a favorite?

Worldwide Wicked Links

tireOur favorite articles you may have missed!

Jessie: I was tickled by this article about the world’s largest tire manufacturer. I bet you will be surprised at who it is!

Edith: Some research I have been doing for Farmed and RoundupDangerous (and yes, that’s the title for Local Foods book three – don’t you love it?). More scary than wicked…

necklaceCALDER-570Sherry: I love yard sales and flea markets and who doesn’t hope to find a treasure that you buy for $15, wear a few times and then realize its worth $300,000!

Liz: I’ve been doing a lot of thought leadership in my new day job, and I love to research best practices and new thinking online. I came across a great blog this week and especially enjoyed this article about thought leadership facilitating conversations.

Barb: Ray Daniel posted this link to an article by Chuck Palahniuk saying it neatly summarized the ideas that recently jumped his writing to the next level. I agree it’s a great article. (Also, as one of Ray’s editors at Level Best Books, completely agree he is writing at a whole new, and exciting level.)

Julie: “25 Steps to Being A Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition” on the Terrible Minds blog. Great, great post.

Readers: What’s your worldwide wicked link?