Category : Writing

A cutter of my own

I love office supplies. I love that office supplies are the tools of my trade.

I think it started in fourth grade when I won a spelling contest—nothing big, just something Miss Milbury cooked up for a Friday morning. The “prize” was a brand new pencil, packaged with a new pink eraser, a thick rubber band holding them together.

When, at my first adult workplace, I had access to a supply room, I thought I’d found my dream job. The room was like a huge walk-in closet. Shelves and drawers on all sides held large quantities of pens, folders, staplers, punches, notepads, paper clips, desk organizers.

Early on my husband figured this out and stopped trying to find just the right necklace or earrings and bought me a paper cutter for my birthday. Wow, my own paper cutter, like the ones only offices and schools had back then! I guess my gratitude was apparent because he’s been sticking with the category ever since—an electric pencil sharpener, a supersize three-hole punch, an electric stapler, a postal scale, reams of colored paper, and “expensive” three-ring binders that don’t eat your fingers when you open and close them.

The only things better than office supplies are colorful office supplies.

My relatives and friends have caught on and I have Vera Bradley folders, teal bookends in the shape of hands, and packing tape with an image of a zipper.

My paper inventory: a color for every application

And an update to that old paper cutter: one with a laser beam that shoots down the side, for perfect alignment, as soon as you raise the handle!

When I was a kid, pencils were green and pens were black and dipped in ink wells. Paper bags were brown, folders were manila, and mailing envelopes were white. The first sticky notes came in yellow only, with no clever sayings or die cut edges.

No wonder I lived an uninspired life back then, coming to writing only as an older adult. I needed color and florals and plaids to get me going.

Never mind a parachute, what color is your folder?

The Write Stuff

What better way to start the new year than with a complete writing-course-in-a-blog? I’m happy to have my friend and award-winning writer, MICHAEL A. BLACK as my guest today.

The Write Stuff

By

Michael A. Black

When Camille heard that I had a new book out, she graciously offered me a chance to be a guest on her blog. We used to be alternating partners on the now defunct Ladykillers blog, and I always looked forward to reading her submissions on that site. So, after offering my heartfelt thanks to this great lady for this opportunity, I’ll offer the following.

Besides writing at as furious a pace as I can manage, I also teach creative writing classes at a local junior college. I find the experience gratifying in being able to offer suggestions to people interested in writing. I’ve found that teaching, once thought to be the refuge of “those who can’t,” has actually helped me refine my own writing process. I’ve distilled this process into seven steps, which I list as Characters, Plotting, Point of View, Setting, Showing vs. Telling, Dialogue, and Revision. I spend a lot of time explaining each one in the beginning weeks of the class, and use various short stories as examples of each principle. I also stress that all of them need to be viewed in a holistic sense, and not as disparate entities.

For Characters I suggest the creation of a character bible, which details the physical characteristics and backgrounds of each character. These can be as detailed or brief as you want. For a major character, the entry would normally be much greater than that of a minor character who will appear only once in the story.

Plotting seems to be the most difficult aspect to master for beginning writers. It’s easy to start, but harder to finish, and it’s a lot easier to finish if you know where you want to end up. For that reason I stress outlining. It not only saves time, but it also helps curtail tangential writing. How many times does a “pantser” have to throw out long passages of really fine writing because it eventually becomes clear that the writer has strayed off the path? The answer for me is, “Too many.” Outlining helps you save time and effort.

Selecting the right point of view is also a crucial thing to decide before you start writing. Y advice on this is simple: if the story is character oriented, use the first person. If it’s plot oriented, use the third. And above all, stay away from using the second person. There supposedly is a successfully written novel using the second person out there, but I’ve never been able to find it. I also stress that these rules aren’t set in stone, so if you start out in one point of view and feel it’s not working, try switching it for a while and see if it sounds better.

With setting I point out that it’s imperative to involve the reader in the scene, and the easiest way to do this is by using the five senses. What is the character seeing, smelling, hearing, etc. as he walks into the old house? Usage of the senses will put the reader in the character’s shoes.

Keep this in mind with showing vs. telling as well. The common advice of “Show, don’t tell,” isn’t always applicable. You should use “showing” to ground the reader in the scene, but there are times when the story needs to be advanced at a quicker rate, and “telling” is how you do this.

Dialogue must sound natural, but it shouldn’t copy conversational speech verbatim. Dialouge is the ultimate show and tell device and it should advance the story in an entertaining fashion. Thus, leave out all the mundane stuff that a real conversation might include.

And lastly, I stress the most important part: revision. As Roald Dahl used to say, ”Good writing is rewriting.” It’s also the most fun for me.

Let’s take a look at this process in action. I write the Executioner series under the name Don Pendleton, and my latest book, Dying Art, was just released in December. Now the characters and point of view are already set ahead of time, so I had to come up with a new idea for the plot.

I started out doing some brainstorming:

A stolen ancient artifact… The pending trial of a drug kingpin’s son… A murdered Mexican reporter… A vengeful message scrawled in Arabic… And a state of the art superweapon…

I had to combine all of these into the Executioner’s newest adventure.

I then expanded these ideas into a paragraph:

After conducting a daring raid south of the border to capture the wanted son of a Mexican drug lord, Bolan finds himself in the crosshairs of the scion’s vengeful father. Added to the mix is a wealthy industrialist willing to go to any length to acquire a stolen, ancient Iraqi artifact. He also happens to have a defense contract to develop a new superweapon. Making things more dangerous is a ruthless team of highly proficient members of a private military organization employed by the cartel to carry out a sinister revenge plot of international proportions. Bolan finds himself in a race against the clock to prevent the superweapon from falling into the wrong hands and sending the nation into chaos.

Once I had the plot down, I kept expanding the paragraph until I had a detailed summary of the novel. Then I broke it down into scenes and the story was clear to me, which is not to say that it was set in stone. I ended up changing and modifying the scenes a few times during the course of writing the book.

I used the same process for my previous Executioner novel, Fatal Prescription, which won the Best Original Novel Scribe Award in 2018.

Initially, there’s seemingly little connection between the brutal, viral devastation of a small, African village and the massacre at a drug research facility in Belgium. The Executioner’s interest is piqued by the purported involvement in the latter of a mysterious assassin known as the Red Talon, who’s a master of disguise. With the Talon now in the U.S. committing a series of new murders, Bolan must pull out all the stops to track down the killer, and find those responsible for hiring him. But when the Executioner discovers that a millionaire industrialist is about to unleash the lethal virus in the U.S., and use the antidote as a ticket to Oval Office, Bolan finds himself in a race against a ticking time bomb to stop both the Talon and the pending epidemic.

Before I write each scene, I jot down a list of things I need to accomplish in it. Once I’ve finished writing, I check the list to see if I hit all the points. If not, I know what I have to go back and include.

While I was writing Dying Art, I also had a western novel due the same month. Since I pride myself in never having missed a deadline, I worked on both manuscripts in tandem, writing one and then the other on successive days. It was a challenge, but I finished. The western, which won’t be coming out until October of 2019, is called Legends of the West. A Bass Reeves Story. It’ll be released under my own name, as was my last thriller, Blood Trials, which is about a series of murders that exactly mimic a serial killer case that occurred twenty-eight years before.

In closing I’d also like to say that while this process has served me well in the writing of 31 books, I make no claim that it’s the only way to write a book. Writing is an individual process and you have to find what works best for you. So take a look and give it a try, and if you feel any of the aspects might be beneficial, use them. Anything that doesn’t feel right for you can be discarded. The main thing is to write. Good luck.

How’s this for an impressive bio (editorial comment by Camille)

Michael A. Black graduated from Columbia College, Chicago in 2000 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction Writing. He previously earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University. Despite his literary leanings, he has often said that police work has been his life. A former Army Military Policeman, he entered civilian law enforcement after his discharge, and for the past twenty-seven years has been a police officer in the south suburbs of Chicago.

The author of over forty articles on subjects ranging from police work to popular fiction, he has also had over thirty short stories published in various anthologies and magazines, including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel, A Killing Frost, featuring private investigator Ron Shade, was published by Five Star in September 2002, with endorsements from such respected authors as Sara Paretsky and Andrew Vachss. The novel received universally excellent reviews, and was subsequently released in trade paperback.

Windy City Knights, the second novel in the Ron Shade series, came out in March of 2004. His third novel, The Heist, a stand-alone thriller set in Chicago, is Black’s third novel. He has also written two nonfiction books, The M1A1 Abrams Tank and Volunteering to Help Kids, which were published by Rosen Press.

He has worked in various capacities in police work including patrol supervisor, tactical squad, investigations, raid team member, and SWAT team leader. He is currently a sergeant on the Matteson, Illinois Police Department. His hobbies include weightlifting, running, and the martial arts. He holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. It is rumored he has five cats.

Cheaper Than a Therapist

I’m happy to welcome my friend, best-selling author LOIS WINSTON as my guest blogger today, and here’s why!

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.

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I’m not one of those authors who always knew they wanted to grow up to write novels. The urge to write came upon me much later in life during a time of great personal stress and upheaval. We all deal with stress in different ways. Some people run marathons, others run to therapy, and still others run to the mall for retail therapy. None of these were viable options at the time.

After years of a mandatory daily mile run around the high school track for gym class—which had to be accomplished in under ten minutes—I’ll only run to escape a killer hot on my heels. Otherwise, forget it!

As for therapy, retail or otherwise, one of the factors causing me stress at the time was financial. We were eating macaroni and cheese casseroles most nights to stretch the food budget. No way could I afford a new pair of socks, let alone a shrink.

So I began to write. It all started with a dream. I normally don’t remember my dreams, but I remembered this one in vivid detail. Each night the dream returned, unfolding like the chapters of a book. Eventually, I decided to write the dream down, and before I knew it, I’d written 50,000 words. That dream, after ten years, many rewrites, and an additional 50,000 words, became the romantic suspense, Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception, the second book I sold to a publisher.

I not only discovered that I enjoyed writing fiction, I realized that writing relieved my stress. Losing myself in my characters enabled me to escape my own problems, if only for a little while. I probably could have accomplished this by journaling, but many years ago I discovered my mother was reading my diary, and I hadn’t written anything truly personal since.

Writing fiction became very cathartic. I could instill various characters with bits and pieces of myself. Every book I’ve written has a little of me in at least one of the characters. But which characters and what traits remain my secret—with one exception. In my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law Lucille is patterned after my own communist mother-in-law. Anastasia’s reactions to her often mirror my own thoughts and actions from back when my mother-in-law was alive. Although I have to admit, Anastasia often handles these situations better than I did at the time. In my defense, though, I’m only human. She’s my better angel, personifying the woman I strive to be. That’s the beauty of fiction. We can recreate ourselves through our characters.

New Release!

Drop Dead Ornaments

An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 7

Anastasia Pollack’s son Alex is dating Sophie Lambert, the new kid in town. For their community service project, the high school seniors have chosen to raise money for the county food bank. Anastasia taps her craft industry contacts to donate materials for the students to make Christmas ornaments they’ll sell at the town’s annual Holiday Crafts Fair.

At the fair Anastasia meets Sophie’s father, Shane Lambert, who strikes her as a man with secrets. She also notices a woman eavesdropping on their conversation. Later that evening when the woman turns up dead, Sophie’s father is arrested for her murder.

Alex and Sophie beg Anastasia to find the real killer, but Anastasia has had her fill of dead bodies. She’s also not convinced of Shane’s innocence. Besides, she’s promised younger son Nick she’ll stop risking her life. But how can she say no to Alex?

Buy Links

Amazon https://amzn.to/2MBo1xS

Kobo https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/drop-dead-ornaments

iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/drop-dead-ornaments/id1431548050?mt=11

Nook https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/drop-dead-ornaments-lois-winston/1129345148?ean=2940161937181

Website: www.loiswinston.com

Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com

Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/anasleuth

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Anasleuth

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/722763.Lois_Winston

Newsletter sign-up: https://app.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/z1z1u5

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/lois-winston

A Triple Halloween

Full disclosure: I’ve preyed upon author JO MELE before to visit The Real Me. This one is a repeat from a couple of years ago, but is my favorite Halloween story. Thanks, Jo!

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My little brother Joey is the most determined; some call it stubborn, person I know. He loved Halloween and couldn’t wait to get home and sort his candy into piles eating all his favorites first.

When he was eight he missed trick or treating because he had a high fever. My mother’s decision to keep him in nearly drove Joey and her crazy. The pleading went on for hours until he gave my mother a headache and was sent to his room in tears.

I went around the neighborhood with two bags asking for a treat for my brother who was home sick. The neighbors were sorry to hear he was missing his favorite Holiday. They were very generous to his sack. He didn’t even feel well enough to do his sorting and eating routine until the following weekend.

The next year Joey had two costumes ready, the pirate from the previous year and the new cowboy costume, (complete with boots and pearl handled Lone Ranger six-shooters) he got for his birthday. He was counting the days to trick or treating.

Unfortunately, he came down with the flu that day and couldn’t even stand.  My mother wouldn’t allow him to go out into the frigid New York afternoon.

I went around the neighborhood with his sack and mine and everyone said, “Oh no, poor guy, not again!” They poured goodies and change into his bag saying he could buy what he liked when he felt better. He made two dollars but wasn’t happy.

When October came around again Joey was ready. He was ten years old, full of energy, had three costumes waiting to be worn. He was determined, and on a mission. My parents had already decided they’d let him go trick or treating – no matter what.

Halloween fell on a Saturday that year, so Joey could rest before his long-awaited adventure and stay out late since it wasn’t a school night. It was a beautiful warm fall day and after whining “Can’t I start yet,” for the hundredth time, my mother gave in and let him start.

He was the first kid out and the last one home. When his bag got heavy he came home, changed his costume and got another one. He started over again, and again, determined to make up for lost time. He had the Halloween of his life.

When Joey finally dragged in and saw his three bags full of goodies waiting for the sorting, he hugged them and burst into tears of joy. He’d won his battle with Halloween. I admired his determination. He never gave up and wouldn’t settle for one round of trick-or-treating when he deserved three. I’m sure I would’ve quit after the first trip out into the cold.

Joey was no quitter, he needed to even the score, two traits he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

Jo and Patience at the NYPL

JOSEPHINE E. MELE is a tour director who lives in California and loves to travel.

Her former job as Director of the Emeritus College, a Life-long learning program at the local community college, enabled Jo to lead groups of travelers interested in education and history to: Cuba, Italy, China, Amsterdam and Egypt.

On her return she schedules a travelogue for those who couldn’t make the trip. Groups of one hundred or more people turn out for these lectures.

An art background enables Jo to draw people into cartoon strips to help remember their names and idiosyncrasies; and provides comic relief.

Several of her travel and non-fiction articles have been published in Parent’s Magazine, Reminisce, The Contra Costa Times Newspaper and the Lamorinda Press.

Jo is an adventurous traveler and opts for the less traveled itineraries. A recent trip to Monaco led her to write Mystery in Monte Carlo. Last year she traveled by herself to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe where she found a few good locations to drop a body or two.

It Takes a Village

It’s only May, and I’ve already been to 3 significant writers’ events this year: Left Coast Crime annual conference in Reno, Nevada; the Edgar™ Banquet; and Malice Domestic, a conference in Bethesda, Maryland. In a couple of months, I’ll be attending a 4th, ThrillerFest, in New York City.

Jeffrey Deaver (the tall one) and me at the podium for the Edgar™Awards

In between there have been writers meetings, bookstore events, and book clubs.

One of the things that worried me when I thought of writing as a career was that it would be a solitary occupation. So much for that.

I’d been a physicist for a long time. No one does physics alone, not since Newton, anyway. Who can accommodate something like a 17-mile-long tunnel to house a collider, or a 192-beam laser, in her garage?

Physicists gather around huge equipment in giant laboratories these days, working as a team. My graduate school mates and I spent long hours together in the same laboratory every day, sharing power supplies, monster-mentor stories, and data. We became close friends and knew each others’ families as well as our own for a few years.

All the while, I’d wanted to be a published writer—something with more popular potential than my technical papers on the scattering properties of a titanium dioxide crystal. But I couldn’t imagine sitting alone in a room with pen and paper, or keyboard and monitor, pouring out my thoughts and plots, in solitary confinement.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that writing—mystery writing especially—was a community endeavor. I discovered not only professional organizations and critique groups, but book clubs, conferences, Internet lists and groups, and blogging colleagues. Who knew?

Sure, there’s a lot of me-and-my-chair for hours at a time, but I always know I can call or email any number of colleagues if I want to brainstorm a plot point, or discuss a new character I’m developing. With each book, my acknowledgments list gets longer.

Also, like physics, writing requires research. Most of it is people-oriented, which has turned out to be quite a bonus. In the course of writing themes and subplots for 25 books, I’ve interviewed an embalmer, a veterinarian, a medevac helicopter pilot, an ice climber, a telephone lineman, a hotel administrator, an elevator maintenance man, a postmistress, a musician, and countless experts in forensics, and—uh—ways to kill people. I even have a special cop who never minds answering procedural questions.

I’ve gone to conferences in cities I’d never have visited otherwise, like Omaha and Boise and Milwaukee (I usually fly over these states on my way to and from San Francisco and Boston or New York.)

And the readers! In each series I’ve tried to make the protagonist sleuth someone readers would like to have lunch with. I’m still amazed and pleased when readers approach me, through email or at a signing, with a kind word about my books, and I remember whom I’m writing for.

Research at the Morgan Library

I’m sure some writers prefer go it alone, but I never would have made it.

The writing and reading community are smart, fun, and generous.

I’m glad I found them.

Writing Ideas Straight from the Headlines

I’m pleased to host MAGGIE KING today. Whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both, you’ll enjoy this post . . .  and maybe never read the news the same way again!

Maggie is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology.

Writing Ideas Straight from the Headlines

I’m often asked where I get my ideas. They come from everywhere, especially the headlines. I don’t even need to know the whole story—headlines by themselves are great writing prompts.

My “idea file” is stuffed with newspaper clippings with intriguing headlines. Here’s a peek at a few of my favorites:

FBI: Cruise Ship Passenger Killed Wife Because “She Would Not Stop Laughing at Me”

In July, a Utah man was charged with killing his 39-year old wife aboard an Alaskan cruise ship. When asked by a witness why he had attacked his wife, he responded: “She wouldn’t stop laughing at me.”

I’m bursting with questions after reading this article. What kind of life did this couple lead at home in Utah? Did the wife often laugh at her husband?

Their stunned neighbors described them as the “perfect” couple, celebrating an anniversary at sea. They gave no hints of the horror to come. Really?

The answers to my questions don’t really matter, because I can spin my own story around this tragedy.

People don’t like to be ridiculed and traveling can be fraught with tension. Laughter has been the motive for many a murder. In the story I’m currently writing, the victim was given to freely laughing and may, just may, have laughed at the wrong person.

Consider this headline from the Ask Amy advice column (advice columns are a goldmine of ideas):

Neighbors’ Partying Creates a Disturbance

A couple moves to a beautiful new house in the winter months. Come summer, the neighbors are having raucous parties until the wee hours. What should the couple do? They don’t want to alienate their new neighbors.

In real life, this couple probably would balk at actual murdering the offending neighbors. But in murder mystery land it’s as good a motive as any. Enough sleepless nights will put anyone in a murdering mood.

Also from Ask Amy:

Boyfriend’s Social Scrutiny is Troubling

A woman’s insecure boyfriend was sure she was having an “emotional” affair with a male friend, who happened to be gay. The boyfriend created secret social-media accounts to monitor the woman’s daily activity. He also monitored the friend’s activity. In addition, he even felt threatened by his girlfriend’s female friends.

The woman concludes with “He’s wonderful in so many ways.” Hmm.

Oh my, does this give me ideas. Who will be the victim(s) here?

Clancy Sigal, Novelist Whose Life Was a Tale in Itself, Dies at 90

Novelist Clancy Sigal died last month. He went to jail at age 5. His mother, a Socialist union organizer, had been arrested in Chattanooga, Tennessee for violating social and legal norms when she met with black and white female textile workers. Hauled away to the jailhouse, she took Clancy with her.

As an American Army sergeant in Germany, Clancy plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Later, he landed on Hollywood’s blacklist. During a 30-year self-imposed exile in Britain as an antiwar radical, Mr. Sigal was the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing’s lover and often flirted with suicide.

This man’s life could fill several books.

A few more headlines:

Illinois Man Killed by Cyanide Poisoning after Striking It Rich in Lottery

A Woman Ponders Grounds for Divorce

Using Work to Avoid Life after an Act of Infidelity

Virginia Man Pleads Guilty in Conspiracy Case

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As writers, we can come up with our own headlines, creating a stockpile of ideas. Writing coach Ann Kroeker challenges writers to compose 50 headlines in one week. For more information, see her post at http://annkroeker.com/2016/05/15/50-stop-waiting-last-minute-writing-inspiration.

***

Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women. She has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. Maggie graduated from Elizabeth Seton College and earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. She has called New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California home. These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.

Website: http://www.maggieking.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieKingAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr

Instagram: maggie8208

Buy link for Murder at the Moonshine Inn: http://amzn.to/2dtozWa

Q/A Week

Now and then, I allow some time to de-clutter my files. I found this interview, the questions from a high school boy doing an assignment. I thought I’d share today

• What is the first book you remember reading?

There were no readers in my family, and no “children’s sections” in bookstores (actually, no bookstores in my hometown!). So the first book I read that wasn’t for homework was when I was in college. I wandered into the science library and found a biography of Marie Curie – the scientist who won 2 Nobel prizes for her work with radioactivity. I remember thinking, maybe all these other books are just as fascinating. And I began my reading life.

• What or who inspired you to begin writing?

My high school teachers inspired me to keep learning. My Italian teacher told us that she took classes every summer in something she knew nothing about, so she’d understand what her freshmen were going through. So, once I learned all the math and science I could, I took writing classes, and when I was 60, I thought it was time to start a new career.

• If you could have lunch with 3 authors (past and present) who would they be and what do you think you would all talk about during lunch?

First, Dante Alighieri, who wrote La Commedia, later called The Divine Comedy, which I read in Italian in high school and in English later; Second, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Third, Stephen King, contemporary author of many stories. They all write about themes that I love: good and evil; mathematics and logic; and the mysterious ways that people behave. We’d have a great lunch!

• How do you avoid or defeat writers block?

UH-OH (Photo credit: Author Jo Mele)

By not believing in it! I tell myself that if I were a cab driver, I’d have to go to work every day even if I didn’t feel like it, even if yesterday was disastrous. I’m a writer – I write even when I don’t feel like it, or even if yesterday’s output was a car wreck.

• How do you define success as an author?

I’m the kind of author who requires readers! When even one person tells me she enjoyed one of my books, or learned something from it, I consider myself successful.

Any questions from The Real Me readers?

How to Turn Your Day Job into a Mystery Series

www.storiesofyou.org

Reprinted from STORIES OF INSPIRATION, ED. SUZANNE FOX

Lucky me—I’ve managed to turn every aspect of my life into a mystery series. It started with Camille the Scientist and the Periodic Table Mysteries.

I’d had the idea for years, ever since Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi hit the stores in the early eighties. I realized that a guaranteed 26 books was nothing compared to the 100+ possibilities I had at my fingertips as a scientist. The alphabet? A piddling list. The periodic table was where it was at, and it was still growing.

For the next 10 years or so, I told everyone within earshot about my great plan—to write a mystery series based on the Periodic Table: The Hydrogen Murder, The Helium Murder, and so on, up to the last atomic number recorded. I talked about my series as if I’d already written it.

I see this now as a common phenomenon—like Dorothy Parker’s “I love having written.”

Eventually I stopped using my computer for endless games of yahtzee and solitaire and started my first novel. There was no question about who would be my protagonist, what her background would be, what career she’d have. No question either about the setting.

Enter Gloria Lamerino, Italian-American physicist from Revere Beach, Massachusetts. In other words, me, except for the part about being smart and brave enough to take on a murder case. Gloria needed a connection to a cop, who’d look like a cross between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, with the heft of Paul Sorvino. And she’d need an interesting place to live—how about the abode of one of my first boyfriends, a mortuary intern whose apartment was above a funeral parlor? Imagine the fun of following Gloria as she creeps down to the laundry area, on the same floor as the embalming room.

This was my math: A Periodic Table Mystery Series was a perfect opportunity to present my view of females in STEM; my knowledge of Italian scientists and Italian-American culture; and my love of the town I grew up in, the site of the country’s first “theme park” and the first public beach in the United States. Uberambitious! And a poor example for my current writing students when I warn them not to cram too many themes and “messages” into one book.

But I was young, barely 60 years old.

The first eight books of the series wrote themselves. Each element of the table is fascinating, with great potential for good or evil. Lithium, for example,  can be used in manufacturing and in medicine; it also reacts violently with water, forming a highly flammable gas and corrosive fumes. In The Lithium Murder, a janitor at a lab overhears secrets concerning the dangers of lithium waste disposal and is murdered when he tries to blackmail the researchers.

My sorry job was to explore the possibilities of crime and criminals surrounding each element. The worst part was sometimes turning scientists into killers. Otherwise, after a few books, readers would realize, “Well, we know it’s not the physicist.” I managed to spread the wealth of criminal pathology around characters with various occupations.

By the time I reached The Oxygen Murder, my agent asked, “Do you have any other ideas?” I quickly learned that this question was code for Enough of the elements; give us something more popular.

I had to acknowledge that not everyone was addicted to the splendor of the periodic table and mined the rest of my life for ideas and potential series. My life long hobby as a miniaturist gave birth to Gerry Porter and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, in the Miniature Mysteries (writing as Margaret Grace). When the “code” came up again, I tapped into my tenure as a college professor with the Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries (writing as Ada Madison). And most recently, my brief stint as a postal worker led me to Postmaster Cassie Miller (writing as Jean Flowers).

All four series are ongoing in one form or another, either as novels or short stories. And, since I did a stint as a “Kelly Girl,” I still have jobs to tap into—paralegal anyone? How about German translator? As long as I can keep thinking up pen names, I should be okay.

Cinco de Mayo

Tomorrow, May 5, is Cinco de Mayo. I realize all I’ve done here is translate the date into Spanish, but the date has a special place in my writing heart.

In my first book, The Hydrogen Murder (1997), I have my protagonist say the following:

Besides the changing seasons, another thing about the east coast that I’d missed were holidays like Patriot’s Day on April 19 and Bunker Hill Day on June 17. Berkeley parking meters called October 12 ‘Indigenous Peoples Day,’ and California residents in general emphasized a different set of holidays, like Mexican Independence Day on May 5, and Admission Day on September 9.

It’s changed in later editions – how many of you know why?

DUH. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is on September 16. I found this out the hard way – from a professor at a college in Mexico City. The woman was not too pleasant about it, and who could blame her? Just like a gringa, she wrote in an email, and I could almost hear the disgust in her voice.

I wonder what the parallel would be for the United States. Calling the  Battle of Gettysburg (1863) “American Independence Day?”

I learned my lesson and have never made the “Mexican Independence Day” error again, even though I don’t know anyone who celebrates on September 16.

If you don’t know, Cinco de Mayo is observed to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

So much harder to write on a cake; no wonder I made a mistake.

Irritating Reads

What good is a rant if you can’t reuse it?

Here’s my latest, on The LadyKillers blog a couple of weeks ago.

One of my biggest pet peeves in crime fiction is HEAD-HOPPING. You know what I mean – the practice of switching point of view within a scene.

I spend a good deal of time discussing POV with my writing students, and invariably one will point out a best-selling author who does this willy nilly (at random, every which way, here and there, all over the place, in no apparent order).

After I ungrit my teeth, I try to explain. And I try to find good articles on the topic. Here are a couple of favorites.

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2014/04/30/head-hopping-fiction-writing/

http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/09/10/head-hopping-gives-readers-whiplash/

https://ellenbrockediting.com/2013/11/26/the-difference-between-omniscient-pov-and-head-hopping/

Head-hopping is common and acceptable in the romance genre:

As Billy Bob and Sally Jo danced, he felt he was in heaven and she couldn’t wait for the last chord.

But in a romance, it’s the relationship that’s the main character, the romance matters more than either Billy Bob or Sally Jo.

Head-hopping in a mystery, however, is detrimental to the story. The best-selling author (I’ll call her P. L.) who invaded my class most recently at least plays “fair,” in that she gets into the head of every principal character except one—the killer’s, of course. So, after four or five head-hopping chapters, you can identify the killer.  He’s the one whose thoughts you’re not privy to. Booo.

Another best-selling author (I’ll call him S. J.) cheats! You get into the head of every character, including the killer, but while you’re in the killer’s head, he “acts” as innocent as all the others, wondering what the killer’s motive was, how the killer managed to escape, and so on.

Both the cheating and the non-cheating versions are IRRITATING. (Yes, I’m shouting.)

Now—your turn!

Does head-hopping bother you? What does?