Friday, March 6, 2015

How Now Purple Cow

A guest blog by Marja McGraw

It seems that something unexpected usually inspires a story for me. I won’t go into titles, for the most part, in the interest of space.

In my Sandi Webster series, stories were inspired by (get this) the Red Light District in Old Los Angeles, something that actually happened to me in another book, meeting an elderly female private investigator, a photo of a vintage, abandoned house in Nevada, and an admiration for Humphrey Bogart. Another was inspired by what used to be an ostrich ranch in Arizona. An ostrich ranch? It became a llama ranch in short order and included ghostly sightings and a house with character.

Back to the admiration for Humphrey Bogart, a book titled, The Bogey Man was so well received that I started another series involving a Bogart look-alike who wanted nothing more than to become a private investigator. In his case, not all of his dreams came true, but he, his wife and young son went on to become involved in crimes, although against his better judgment.

Chris Cross, known as the Bogey Man, started a forties-themed restaurant with his wife, Pamela. Right off the bat they discovered a body in a basement. That was the beginning of an interesting life. In one book, some Church Ladies tried his patience and skills when they wanted him to find a missing friend. Some Church Ladies in my own life inspired that one. Chris’s eccentric mother came to town and more adventures followed. Yes, I know a few eccentric people, and I should probably include myself in that category.

However, let me tell you that I never expected ceramic purple cows and a dream to inspire a story, but that’s exactly what happened. Many years ago my grandmother gave me some old ceramic figurines, including two purple cows. There should have been three, but apparently the bull was broken somewhere along the way. They were begging to be included in a book. I can’t explain it, but the idea simply wouldn’t let go of my imagination.

How could a writer use purple cows in a mystery? Well, if you add a dream about two close friends being spies, all kinds of doors can open.

After doing a lot of research about spies and spying, I found that only a minimal part of that research would fit the story. However, it gave me a feel for what things were like during the Cold War and what agents were up against. Maybe I’ve watched too much television, but it all seemed to fit together in a neat little story package.

Purple cows and elderly spies were a natural. Oh, and they needed just a little humor to pull it all together. If you include the young son and two Labrador retrievers in the mix, you’ve got some unusual puzzle pieces to fit together.


What could purple cows and elderly spies possibly have to do with each other?

When young Mikey Cross discovers ceramic purple cows, a ring, and investigative notes left by a mystery writer popular in the 1950s, his parents’ and grandparents’ lives are turned upside down.

Pamela and Chris Cross become involved in vintage intrigue with trepidation and more than a little angst when they find out there’s an elderly assassin on the prowl and the situation isn’t quite as vintage as they thought.

The dead just may come back as the living when it’s least expected.


I’ve tried to write all of my books so they can be read in any order. The only thing you might miss by reading them haphazardly would be the growth of the characters. That’s livable.

I enjoy being entertained when I read, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for readers of my books. I hope I can make you laugh, or at least chuckle, and in addition I hope the puzzles keep you guessing.

Hmm. I did write one book where the killer was fairly easy to spot. Ah, yes, there was an unexpected twist at the end. Always keep the reader guessing.

So, if you’re inspired as a reader, you might try How Now Purple Cow to see how purple cows and elderly spies fit together.

Jean, thank you so much for inviting me in today. I had a wonderful time talking about inspired stories.

Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and most recently for a city building department.  A resident and employee in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, she wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and a little murder! She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

20 years, 25 mysteries

by Carola

I had been writing Regencies for 15 years when my first mystery came out, in 1994.  The 25th comes out in June.  I've been working with the same editor at St Martin's Minotaur for TWENTY years, the longest of any of his authors!

Just in time for that anniversary, the first of the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries is being reissued in trade paperback with a brand-new cover, by the artist who has been doing the art for the series since the 12th, Die Laughing.

In comparison, here is the original hardcover, as well as the large print, audio, UK, Polish, and a couple of German translation covers:

large print

first German edition
second German edition

US paperback

Interesting to see what different artists make of the story--or at least of whatever they've been told about it! I think the new one is far and away the best, though I don't recall giving Daisy a red scarf. I've already been asked for suggestions for the reissue of the second in the series, The Winter Garden Mystery, and I can't wait to see it (not coming out till Dec. 2016 so I guess I'll have to wait!).

Death at Wentwater Court trade pb due out March 17th, available for preorder.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Putting Yourself in Your Book

By Chester Campbell

I'm often asked how much of myself gets into my books. Obviously an author's ideas fill his or her work, but not much of the writer's personal life winds up in the fictional world. My new book out shortly turns all of that around.

Hellbound is a suspense story that, except for the ending, takes place over a five-day period. The action during that time occurs in settings that mirror almost exactly a similar five days of my life back around 1995. The book's plot involves a busload of seniors from a suburban Nashville church who head down the Natchez Trace on a carefree journey to The Big Easy. By the fourth day they become aware that a Mafia hit squad has been playing a deadly game of tag with them.

Except for the Mafia angle and the hurricane and its aftermath, the bus journey to New Orleans follows exactly the trip my wife and I took with a group from City Road Chapel United Methodist Church in Madison, TN twenty years ago. It includes the tour of the French Quarter we took aboard a mule-drawn carriage, right down to some of the driver's spiel that I taped with a small recorder. I changed the name of the church and created new characters for the driver and bus passengers, although a few resemble actual people.

This book is more personal to me than anything I’ve written. It’s almost biographical in some respects. One of the two main characters, Marge Hunter, lived in East Nashville on Gartland Avenue in a house similar to the one in which I grew up. She attended East Nashville High School in the early years of World War II, as I did. She graduated from the University of Tennessee and moved to Madison after she was married. Same as me.

The seniors on the bus know one passenger as Bryce Reynolds, a retiree who lives not far from the church. He is really Pat Pagano, a successful Las Vegas stockbroker who was lured into handling investments for a New York crime family. After his two grown sons are killed in an attack by a rival gang and his wife succumbs to cancer, Pagano decimates the mob with his testimony in federal court. He disappears, then resurfaces in Nashville as Reynolds, a retired businessman from Oklahoma. But after years of searching, an old Mafia capo tracks Pagano to the church bus en route to New Orleans.

Hellbound is currently available for pre-order as an ebook for the Kindle at this link. It will be available shortly in paperback.
Mystery Mania blog

Saturday, February 28, 2015


by June Shaw

After you finish writing a book, do you always know what you'll write next?

If you're writing a series, you'll know who your main character are, and you might have an idea of where your plot will go. In fact, if you're like me, while creating one book in the series, you're getting plot points or new characters for the next one. I love when that happens.

But suppose you're done with that series and you want to start another. Or you're ready to write a single title. Do you know where you'll go with it?

Possibly like me, you have an idea file or a synopsis or opening scenes or characters for new works.

And possibly like you, you've really just gotten to the end of a stand alone and have revised until you can't look at it any longer, and then..... What?

I think I'll go out to eat tonight. I'll also catch up on a movie or two.

Soon--very soon, I promise--I will begin that diet, and I'll exercise. Oh, maybe I could go and start that right now. But nothing too strenuous so I'd be tired to go out tonight. I will, though, stop exercising my fingers right now, and I'll go and move my body.

Next time maybe I'll tell you how much weight I've lost: ) And what new book I've started on.

What about you? How do you handle ending one book and starting on another? Or starting to do exercise?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Falling in Love with Revision

by Jackie King

Do you love or hate revision? When I first started writing I hated what seemed to me a tedious and mostly unnecessary exercise. What could need correcting except perhaps, punctuation and spelling? I had stories to tell and a passion to write these tales from the depth of my heart. I did a fair job of it, too, I thought. I even managed to sell a couple of short stories. (This was some time ago and the short story market was good.)

My mother, an English teacher, also wrote and hung around with folks having the same inclination. One of her more successful writer friends, a local journalist named Vera Holding, dropped by with a draft she’d just banged out on her typewriter. (Those were the clickety-clackety, non-electrical machines that writers, businesses and students used for letters, manuscripts and such back in the dark ages.)

“Would you listen to my story and give me some feedback?” Vera asked, and we agreed, so she began to read aloud. I had seen this woman’s published work and expected smooth and polished prose, but that didn’t happen. Her story was so bad I couldn’t think of anything to suggest that might help. Her work was unsalable in my opinion. So I decided to be kind and lie. “That’s just fine,” I said, and smiled.

Mother, who knew the woman and her work much better than I did, made some suggestions to strengthen the plot, but nothing could save that story. Or so I thought. Her work had no plot; her characters were shallow and her writing seemed lifeless. But bless her heart, I thought, she’d not learn that from me.

The next day Vera came back and asked to read her revised story aloud. I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes, disappointed that I had to listen to that drivel a second time. But I was raised to be polite, so I folded my hands in my lap, crossed my ankles, and pasted a smile on my lips.

When Vera began to read something magical happened. The day before I’d been bored and even a little embarrassed by her writing. Now I was transfixed. Somehow this author had breathed life into her characters, their dialogue and the narration. The plot was still weak, but the protagonist was so compelling that I knew the story would sell. And it did.

That day I became a devotee to the power of revision. I also learned the difference between a wanna-be writer and a professional writer. Learning and applying good writing technique takes time and many, many hours of writing. But anyone who is willing to make the effort and to revise their work until its right, can master this skill.

Years have passed and revision is my favorite part of writing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Son (or probably Daughter) of The Figurehead

by Bill Kirton
The original
This blog’s intended to embarrass me. I only say that because it seems I’ve been mentioning the present Work In Progress for ages, maybe even years. Usually, once I start the actual writing of it, the first draft of a novel takes me about six months. This one is resisting me and it’s embarrassing that it’s taking so long. This is the story so far.

Way back, a friend, out of the blue, said ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver’. At that point, I’d published 3 modern mysteries. But I like sailing boats, I live in Aberdeen, Scotland, which has a great shipbuilding tradition, and I love the Romantic period, so why not?

Research involved looking through the usual archive materials and reading newspapers about events in the Aberdeen of 1840. I also took up wood carving, so that I could get the feel of conjuring a distinct shape out of a big log. And I sailed across the North Sea as part of the crew of the beautiful square-rigger Christian Radich.

So there I was, starting yet another crime novel, but this time with no worries about DNA or any of the other CSI techniques. And I created a character, John Grant, who’s a figurehead carver. He’s also a handsome loner – you know the type – and he was going to be my Miss Marple and solve the mystery of the body found on the beach.

But all that was before I met Helen Anderson. She’s a young woman who resists the oppressions imposed on her sex in the 1840s and defies conventions. She’s bright, witty, self-assured and more complicated than I know. She’s also intrigued by the death of the man on the beach, a shipwright who was building her father’s new ship, which was to be named after her mother, Elizabeth.

I won’t go into details of the plot because I always find synopses very
An offshoot of my research - one of my own carvings
unsatisfactory. John continues with his sleuthing but it’s the intervention of Helen that gives him the final insight he needs to piece things together. Meanwhile, he’s carving a figurehead for the Elizabeth Anderson and, at the request of Helen’s mother, he’s making it a composite image of herself and Helen. So he’s coaxing her likeness from the oak in his workshop and the carving lies there continually reminding him (and me) of Helen. For her, the carving is an excuse to visit John and, incidentally, discuss their respective theories about the killing.

But what came to be far more important than the detective work was the growth in their relationship. She’s rich and, despite her intelligence, protected from any real awareness of the lives lived by the people who work around the quays of Aberdeen. But her curiosity and her determination to involve herself in her father’s world of trade and intrigue lead her to befriend the dead man’s wife and form relationships which would appal her parents (if she hadn’t already shown them her determination to be independent).

A dream come true - helming the Christian Radich
And, as she was doing all this, she quite quickly pushed her way to the front of the narrative – or at least to a position of sharing the spotlight with John. Neither admits openly to the fascination they hold for one another and love is never mentioned, but the tenderness, the tensions, the playfulness and the quarrels they have all suggest a passion which surely can’t be suppressed forever. So I found that I became far more interested in how their actions affected each other, how the mind of each was filled with thoughts of the other, and how their strong personalities clashed and sparked and led to more frustrations than satisfactions. And it all happened in that wonderful writing state in which you just sit there, listen to what the characters are saying, watch what they’re doing, and write it all down.

The novel ends on a kiss (after the mystery has been solved, of course), but now, here I am trying to get deeper into the sequel. It’s another crime novel because that’s what readers expect, but the main character is Helen, not John, and it’ll be as much a romance as a mystery – probably more. I’ve written a big chunk of it but the thing that’s holding me back is ‘What have they been doing in the twelve months since that first kiss?’ I still can’t answer that question or another which I’ve been asked by several readers – ‘Will John and Helen get together?’ I think they will but I really don’t know. In the end, it’s up to Helen. I just wish she’d hurry up and let me know.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Action is the Heartbeat of Ficion

by Jean Henry Mead

I once read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, which I thought was worth discussing. Rosenfeld said, “Action is a dynamic word that calls to mind a director hooting into a megaphone at his actors. It's also the heartbeat of good fiction that keeps readers riveted to the page. Action is comprised of all the elements a reader can 'witness' taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life. Despite all this, many writers have a tendency to shuffle important action offstage, relying on pace-dragging narrative summaries and recaps instead.”

The solution to preventing pace-dragging scenes is to write them within a framework. By presenting scenes as though they were happening on a theater stage, all the drama takes place as it happens, not offstage and something for the characters to discuss. Readers remember what happens on stage and can make their own deductions. They needn’t wait for the characters to endlessly discuss what has just taken place. Cozies are exempt, of course, because violence and murder take place offstage. 

The scene’s momentum keeps the reader reading and her heart pounding as the action accelerates if the plot situation seems real, particularly when the character is in danger. Instead of characters talking about a past experience, replay the scene in flashback action. By reliving it in living color, the reader can experience it for himself. 

Another good way to involve your reader in a scene is to reveal information in dialogue. A good plot reveals new information in each chapter and one of the best ways to deliver the news is to have the characters act it out. Give the narrator a rest. It’s much more powerful to have events happen now than to hear about it later, secondhand.

Character movement is essential in a good scene, whether the protagonist throws a chair through a window in anger, or flicks ashes from a cigarette into his cup. Don’t leave your characters standing around without something to do. Body language is a giveaway when a character’s motives are in question. If a man drops his head when asked if he killed someone, it usually means he’s guilty or knows who committed the crime. If a woman lifts a palm to her chest while denying something, changes are she’s telling the truth.

If your character comes to an important decision or suddenly realizes that he has the answer to a problem, avoid internal monologue as much as possible. The realization will have more impact if it happens in someone else’s presence because it raises the emotional stakes for all concerned, as well as your storyline. 

And finally, turn your backstory into frontstory whenever possible or delete it from the plot. It’s usually spooned in as narrative summary instead of dialogue and lacks the elements of scene writing. Because it doesn’t take place in the present, there’s no dialogue or scene setting or action taking place. When that happens, the best part of backstory is casually written off without the slightest hint of emotion. And emotion definitely drives the plot.