Category : Writing

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?

My Best

Last week you saw my Worst — a limerick about a typewriter, or was it a typist? So, what was the best thing I’ve ever written?

If “best” equals “memorable,” then I have to admit I wrote my best scene in the last century. At conferences, I still meet people—readers, writers, even authors with far more star power than I’ll ever have—who tell me how compelling that scene was.

My guess is that it’s because The Scene was a thinly disguised true story.

The True Story

I was strolling through Walnut Square in Berkeley, California, a multilevel shopping structure. To access the restrooms, one had to start at street level and climb an outdoor flight of stairs to a mid-level, half-indoor, half-outdoor facility. Some time in mid-afternoon, I made my way up the steps, and entered the women’s area, on the left.

The short version of the rest of the story: I was flashed.

The long version became a scene in my next novel, THE BERYLLIUM  MURDER, detailing my panic, my response, my eventual escape.

The Scene

Here’s the scene in its entirety.

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It might have been Rita’s extra-fit body that inspired me—when I left her, I had a rare desire for physical exercise and decided to walk to Elaine’s. Invigorated by the weather of a typical Berkeley morning—still a bit of fog, cool, and breezy—I went at a good clip and approached Walnut Square just before ten o’clock. I looked up at the brown wood multi-level structure with about a dozen shops and restaurants, and realized it offered a painless way to pick up a few souvenirs for Matt and the Galiganis.

It also offered a restroom, which I would need if I weren’t going straight home. I remembered exactly where it was, up a flight of stairs on the Walnut Street side, behind one of the coffee shops.

I walked up the old wooden steps to the public facilities. Just as I’d left them, I noted—unheated, cracked cement floor, ill-fitting door to the outside—more like an outhouse, but adequate for the purpose.

Soon after I’d locked myself into the center of three empty stalls, I heard someone enter the area. The person walked to my door and stood there. I couldn’t tell from the heavy, black athletic shoes whether a male or female was facing me on the other side. I detected a faint, sweet scent that might have been perfume, but I couldn’t be sure the aroma hadn’t already been there, as part of the mix of smells in the room. What I did know was that he/she was not waiting for a stall since there was an empty one on either side of me.

I sat there, all bodily functions suspended, my heart pounding in my chest. The shoes didn’t move. I could hear no breathing but my own, louder than a vacuum pump.

It’s broad daylight, I told myself, and there are shops opening all around me. If this were an attacker, why wouldn’t he break through the flimsy lock on the door. Or shoot through it. Or throw a bomb over the top. Why just stand there?

I shuffled my feet on the floor and rattled the toilet paper holder, as if to tell my would-be assailant I was going about my business unaware of his presence. I knew I couldn’t yell loudly enough for a shopkeeper to hear me, and the street traffic was a whole story below me. I didn’t want to alert my stalker that I was aware of the threat with a useless scream. I swallowed hard and thought, but my head seemed empty except for the echo of my heartbeat.

I reached into my purse for a weapon of some kind, opting not to go down easily. I wished I’d been in the habit of taking care of my nails—at least I’d have a file in my purse if I did. The half-eaten roll of peppermints, the calculator, and the small flashlight I fingered on my way through the contents weren’t going to be much help.

At the bottom of the bag, I found my cell phone. I’d forgotten to leave it home in Revere. I knew it wouldn’t work after all the hours away from its charging base, but I had an idea how I could use it—if it had enough power to make sounds when I pushed on the numbers.

A fake call. Is that the best I can do? I thought. The unfortunate answer was yes. Who shall I pretend to call, then? 911? The attacker would know he had enough time to spare before a response team could get to me. Whoever it was still hadn’t moved, or cleared his or her throat, leaving me with no clues about gender. The sweet odor faded in and out as I sat there.

I made my decision. A fake call it would be. I abandoned the idea of “Rocky,” as too obvious for a strong man, and “Bill” or “Bob” as too wimpy. I chose Mike. I punched seven numbers at random, as if I were making an ordinary call within the area code. I was thrilled to hear the sound of the connection at each button. After a moment, I said, in as loud a voice as I could summon, “Mike. Come up the stairs. Into the ladies room. Quickly.”

The unisex shoes turned in the direction of the door, giving me hope for a moment. What followed, however, was a ghoulish jig, the bulky shoes stopping, turning back to me, then finally shuffling out the door, like a dancer uncertain of his steps. I breathed out and listened intently. No further sound. Had my bluff worked, in spite of the uncertainty I’d sensed at the end? Had the person left or was he or she waiting for Mike?

I could hardly believe my pitiful scheme was effective, but I knew it was my best chance to leave the stall. I tugged at my clothing, took a few breaths and went outside, rushing down the stairs to the sidewalk. I looked around and saw no one who looked like an attacker, and no one who could have passed for Mike.

What I did see on the ground at the bottom of the stairs was a ski mask. A navy blue ski mask, in Berkeley, in June. I glanced up and down the street, as if I’d be able to spot the owner and compare shoe sizes with those of my pseudo-stalker, but the only people in view were a noisy family of four alighting from a teal blue minivan.

I shivered and walked away.

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What about the next 20 books I’ve written? Apparently nothing stands out.

If you’ve read anything of mine that’s better than this, I’d really like to know.

Xtreme Halloween

The Real Me is always happy to welcome author and educator, JO MELE. This time she’s sharing a great Halloween story. The piece first appeared in Reminisce Magazine.

Halloween Trick or Treating

by Jo Mele

The Real Joey

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

When he was eight he had to miss trick or treating because he had a high fever. My mother’s decision to keep him in nearly drove Joey 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 and 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 last 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 and couldn’t even stand. My mother did not allow him to go out into the frigid New York air.

I went around the neighborhood with his sack and mine and everyone said “Not again.” They poured goodies and change into his bag, and said 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 unused 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.

He was the first kid out and the last one home. When his trick-or-treat bag got heavy he came home, changed his costume and got another bag. 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 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. Joey was no quitter, he needed to even the score, two traits he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

A Noisy Room of Her Own

I’ve learned to be very flexible in terms of where and when I write. Deadlines can do that to a writer.

Finding time, the “when,” is pretty easy. All I have to do is cut back on sleep and housecleaning, put a few multitasking techniques into play, and I’m all set.

The ideal place to write.

The “where” is more challenging. Living in a suburb as I do, it’s sometimes hard to find a noisy spot. We’re at the end of long driveway, at least 300 feet from the main street. In the evening, there are no sounds—no buses, no honking horns, no crowds of people.

Once in a while, I get a little relief. Our neighbors on the adjoining street are great partiers, periodically turning their backyard into a venue for celebrations. I get very excited when I see a HAPPY ANNIVERSARY or CONGRATULATIONS banner going up across the fence. We don’t know the family, so, of course we’re not invited. The best of all cases—I get to write to a cheering crowd, music included, without needing to show up. A perfect background for creative writing.

I grew up in a relentlessly noisy environment. My childhood bedroom window was no more than five feet from the juke box of a pizza parlor. [For those with a fact checker bent, look up DeMaino's Pizza in Revere, Massachusetts, still doing a thriving business.]

For years of undergraduate study, I had a commute of about an hour and 40 minutes each way, on a good day. So, I did the bulk of my homework with my arm wrapped around a pole on Boston’s MTA, the same one from which Charlie never returned.

My last apartment before migrating from Boston to California was above a bar in East Boston. It was the pre-recycling era and the law required all empty liquor bottles to be smashed. The idea was to prevent unhygienic refilling. Every night, for about an hour after the 2 a.m. closing, employees gathered around a metal barrel directly under our windows, in the back yard, and tossed the bottles into the barrel. With zero hope of sleeping, the surrounding tenants had no choice but to make good use of the time.

Those experiences shaped me forever. Once I know that the world is being taken care of, that life is going on, I can focus on my thoughts, my reading or writing. When it’s silent around me, every creaking floorboard startles me, the ice maker in my refrigerator door sounds like thunder, an air conditioner kicking in shakes me out of whatever thoughts I’m trying to put on paper.

Other than from Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, I’ve felt little support in this attitude. Imagine how excited I was recently to find myself in the excellent company of Helen Keller:

“Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. Always I return home weary but I have the comforting certainty that mankind is real flesh and I myself am not a dream.”  — Mainstream

What great company I’ve discovered! Never again will I apologize for my need for assurance that the world outside my head is present and accounted for and doesn’t need me at the moment.

The Postmistress Cometh

Postmistress Cassie Miller debuted in DEATH TAKES PRIORITY  in November 2015. Last week, you heard her speak in her own voice. This week, she’s back, starring in the second postmistress mystery, CANCELLED BY MURDER, released this week.

Warning: No cat appears in this book.*

* This caveat is in anticipation of readers who are moved to notify me (chastise me?) of their disappointment when there’s a cat on the cover but nowhere in the story. On the positive side, no cats were harmed before, during, or after the making of this novel.

No Research Stone Unturned

Author FRAN WOJNAR visits The Real Me today with her story of diligent research for her novel, Magdalena’s Conflict.  And, lest you think I’m partial to this book because the protagonist is Sister Camille: I met Fran long after her book was published!

Before writing the murder mystery Magdalena’s Conflict, I centered my research for Eliza, an Iowa Pioneer, on immigrant customs and stories. I had read the early Iowa Palimpsests and Annals of Iowa. A book about murder would be a challenge for me. If a TV program pictured a person with a gun or a police chase, I would switch channels. Since my story involved the possibility of poisoning and persons afflicted with emotional issues, I had “hard” research to do.

I started with cyanide, my choice of weapon. In Deadly Doses by Stevens and Klarner and Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie, both authors mentioned the sources of cyanide in apricot pits, but, I needed the recipe. Two pharmacists eyed me with suspicion when I asked about the procedure.

I took a tour of the Contra Costa County Crime Lab where I met a police lieutenant who suggested I check out the drug called Laiatral, which contained small quantities of cyanide made from apricot pits. Laiatral, though illegal in the US, was used in Mexico as a treatment for cancer. I was assured that it could be produced in a kitchen in about an hour. I found the recipe in the Contra Costa County Library.

My next questions concerned autopsies. I needed to know things like: Would a body show trauma after ingesting cyanide? What trauma? If a body was buried five to six days, could cyanide be detected in an autopsy? Where? How soon after ingestion would death occur? Could the victim taste cyanide in a cup of coffee?

I called the coroner’s office:

“Flanagan here. This is the Contra Costa County Morgue. What is it you want?”

“I need to talk to the coroner about details for a book I’m writing.”

“The coroner doesn’t do autopsies. We contract with a group of pathologists. Give me your name and phone number and I’ll pass it along.”

Before 7:00 AM the next morning, my phone rang.

“Is this Fran? This is Dr. P. Do you want to come over to the morgue this morning? I’ve got a stack of bodies.”

Watching an autopsy never entered my mind. After I caught my breath. I managed to get out, “I need to ask you a few questions for a book I’m writing.”

“I’m here now. It’s up to you,” he responded.

“Can you talk while you work?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Author Fran Wojnar

When I arrived at the morgue, a deputy met me and ushered me down a dark hall into a large well-lighted room. If the musty odors that smelled like body fluids didn’t convince me, the three bodies on long tables did. Maybe it was the alarmed expression on my face that convinced the staff to gather close to me against the cupboards along the wall, cutting off the view of the tables.

To my surprise, they had questions for me: How long does it take to write a book? What’s the plot? Can we be in your story? Slowly, I began to relax and was able to get answers for my own questions.

Psychotherapy. In my novel Sister Camille believes Mother Rosaria was murdered. Because the newly elected Mother Cordelia thinks Sister Camille suffered from a persecution complex, she orders her to a psychologist. For this research, I asked a psychologist friend to role play potential psychotherapy sessions. In the exercise, my friend’s demeanor changed toward me. It was not our friendly discussions at home. He took the side of Mother Cordelia and agreed Sister Camille had a suspicious nature and the death of Sister Rosaria was none of her business. This irritated me. Sister Camille, whose role I played, wanted to shout, “You wait and see.”

In one session Raymond questioned Sister Camille’s relationship with her parents and siblings. He grabbed onto my childhood memories like a squirrel gnawing on a nut. I thought he distorted my tales. I felt bruised by our sessions.

My husband observed, “You’re finding out some things about yourself.”

I replied, “Huh, but, I don’t know if it’s Sister Camille or me.”

Police Procedures

For this research, I volunteered in the Juvenile Unit at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. The unit was at one end of the large homicide division. I thought I’d be able to hear the detectives talk about their cases and get a feel for their language. Instead I was I holed up in a cubicle and couldn’t hear one word. The restrooms were on the other side of the homicide division, so I’d walk slowly through it hoping to hear them talk. After a few weeks of these walks, the detectives got used to seeing me. I asked one of them, Lieutenant K., if he’d be willing to read the procedural sections of my novel. He was a fan of the mystery writer Joseph Wambaugh and made a big point that a writer doesn’t learn police procedures from watching police shows on TV.

One day I filled him in on my years as a nun. His large eyes bulged. He yanked out his middle desk drawer and slammed a ruler down shouting. “You were one of those knuckle busters!” We both howled with laughter.

Another time I asked him if he’d ever used a jeweler’s loupe. Again, he pulled his middle desk drawer out, and slammed a loupe on his desk. When I asked to see his gun, he leaned over and emptied all the bullets on the floor, then handed it to me.

Lieutenant K. read the police actions in my novel and made suggestions. When he said he’d hire my fictional Detective Kummer to be on his staff, I knew the book was ready and all the research I’d done was worth it.

Writing Advice

Another theft of a good topic from the LadyKillers Blog: Writing advice, with a Real Me twist.

Sometimes I think there’s more advice on writing than actual writing.

Oops. I’m breaking one rule already. The one that says Never use second person.

But I’ve finally found a rule I can live with.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. – Stephen King

King reveals secrets to Minichino

I can’t be sure I understood perfectly what Stephen King said, but I’ll take a shot at it.

Write the book you want to write, alone in your room. Then, when you have a draft, participate as much as possible in the writing community. Enlist all the help you can for critique and pay attention to every suggestion. Not that you follow that suggestion verbatim, but you do something to address the problem.

The community laser, c. 1968

My first exposure to a grown-up career (excluding that of pizza chef on Revere Beach) was in physics research. The centerpiece was a six-foot long helium-neon laser in a basement laboratory where no fewer than eight or nine of us worked at any one time. Communal research, you might say, with one log book for entering data. Over a period of five-and-a-half years, I don’t remember a time when I was alone in the lab, even in the hours after midnight.

I did have to write my dissertation alone, but that was fun—without computers, I was committed to pasting dozens of photos onto multiple copies of the book, using rubber cement. A high!

When I thought of writing as a “career” (only my tax man knows whether it really is one), I worried that I’d be lonely. Could I work for hours on end with no company? No one to talk to across a glass tube, glowing red and providing the necessary stimulus to discuss the issues of the day? No one to share a couple of hard-boiled eggs with when there was no time to hit the White Castle across the street?

It turned out I didn’t have to worry. Because as the King says, after that first dump of words, I could open my door to all the members of Mystery Writers of America, the California Writers Club, and Sisters in Crime; to crowds of subject matter experts, critiquers, and beta readers.

Thanks to all of you!

All About Sodium

Once again, I’ve joined Joanna Campbell Slan and a number of other cozy writers in an anthology, HAPPY HOMICIDES 2.

CLICK TO SEE MORE

My contribution is the short story THE SODIUM ARROW – the 10th installment of the Periodic Table Mystery Series.  Meet freelance embalmer Anastasia Brent in “The Sodium Arrow” as she helps solve the murder of her chemistry teacher and mentor.

The best of . . .

Don’t you love all the year-end lists? Some of them?

I’m falling into the “BEST OF” trap and reprinting an answer to “Best book read in 2015.”

I heard a talk by Margaret Atwood a few years ago. During Q/A, someone in the audience asked her, If you could take just one book with you to a desert island  . . .

Atwood’s answer: I’d take the longest one, of course.

I could borrow her answer for this blog topic, but that would be cheating. Except that, in a way, my favorite was one of the longest ones, taken together: THE GLASGOW TRILOGY by Malcolm Mackay.

The books have everything I love in crime fiction: a hit man protagonist, writing that you want read over and over, and a story that grabs you and won’t let go until the end, when you sit back and say wow, or some other brilliant comment.

Calum MacLean, 29, is a lot like Dexter, except he’s a hit man instead of a serial killer. Each is engaging, lives by a code, and is smarter than everyone around him.

Here’s a sample that I gave my writing class. I could have chosen any two pages. The pages are full of emotional elements, subtext, and suspense. See if you don’t run out (or in) and grab these up.

CLICK TO VIEW LARGER AND READ