Category : Writing

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?”


“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.


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.


The WHEN, WHO, HOW, and WHY of Writing

Now and then The Real Me shares a writing tip. Here’s one repurposed from The LadyKillers blog, my other blog home.

I’m working on the manuscript for my 25th mystery novel, ADDRESSED TO KILL, the third book in the Postmistress Mysteries by Jean Flowers. That’s a lot of victims, killers, weapons, and motives. I worry that I’ll repeat a pattern and there will be no mystery in the next mystery.

So, before I decide on the main elements of a novel, I consult my recorded history. In an effort to have my pub list be egalitarian (as many female as male victims and killers) and diverse (varying the weapons and the motives) I maintain the following chart*

Book   Victim          Killer              Weapon          Motive

1.               M                    F                      gun                  jealousy

2.              F                      F                      vehicle             politics

3.              F                      M                    poison             blackmail

4.            M                     M                      knife                greed

and so on.

* To avoid spoilers for those catching up with my backlist, these entries are fake. But you see the value in the real chart – it helps me spot patterns and avoid predictability. What if a reader notices that a gun is used in every third book, or that a male killer never uses a rope? Not that this guarantees unpredictability, but it helps!

I wonder who else uses gimmicks to support “creativity?”


A recent Cartoon of the Day featured a “medic alert ” bracelet with the words DELETE MY BROWSER HISTORY.

Don’t you wish?

Because if the NSA or Big Sister is watching my history, there will one day be a tap on my door, badges shown, and a “Come With Us.” But that’s not the worse thing that could happen. The worst thing is that I’ll be plagued by ads related to everything I checked out online, for whatever reason.

Just this morning I Googled:

• “Murder weapons” in an attempt capture a cool image for another blog;

• A trailer for The Love Boat. A mistake, it turns out, as I was looking for the new CBS show The Inspectors.

• Porch swings. I don’t have a porch and I wouldn’t swing on one if I did. But I wanted to put one on the fictional porch in the book I’m working on and I needed some “realistic” words. I chose “Nantucket” style and distressed pine as my adjectives. Now, I know I’ll be receiving ads for porch swings for a month.

• Victorian furniture. See above. Is it a coincidence that the same red brocade two-seater I checked out for my setting now appears in my FB feed? I think not.

• An e-birthday card site. Friends, I’m only ever going to choose the FREE ones so stop hoping.

If only DELETE meant DELETE.

Why Write About Crime?

Even some of my miniatures end up as crime scenes.

Most of my friends in the mystery writers community have been asked at least once:  Why do you write about murder? Why not romance? Or biography? Or comics?

A few answers to a question in the words of others:

1) The old familiar:

Because All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— Leo Tolstoy

2) A strange comment from Agatha Christie:

A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no awe, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.

Well, not my mother, but are we to believe that all of Christie’s work represents mothers’ fighting for their children? Hmm, does this mean that even happy families might involve crime?

3) A new one, paraphrasing Michael Connelly in his NYT review of THE WHITES by Richard Price, 2/15/15:

the crime novel [is] something more than a puzzle and an entertainment; [it is] societal reflection, documentation, and investigation

That’s as good a reason as any why I write and read crime fiction.

The Cyclone

“Write what you know” is a common theme among writers. Not bad advice, in general. But in particular, it’s difficult. The more you know, the more experience you have, the more you feel about a topic, the harder it is to put it into a few words that will satisfy you. And if you the writer aren’t satisfied, than pity the reader who has to slog through it.

Thus, only after I’ve sent dozens of my stories out to be read, I’m sending this one, the one I know best. The setting is Revere Beach in the 1950s. I’ve written a little about it in the Periodic Table Mysteries and here and there in this blog, but here is its own story. It’s not about a crime, but it is about fear. And life.

The more you know, the longer it takes to write about it.

Ducks, Cartoons, Ants

I’m thrilled to have a guest blogger today: MARGARET HAMILTON, a longtime friend, author, and recently coauthor of a collection of short stories, SIX SCATTERED STORIES. Her story THE RETURN OF MARCUS CASTEEL is featured in the July 11 issue of New Realm magazine.

Murder Along the Mississippi - Margie and Friends

from Margie:

About twenty years ago I ran across a crayon drawing on one of my mother’s hallway shelves. My best guess is that I drew it in kindergarten. The picture was of three ducks in an almost vertical pond. Each duck had a conversation bubble that read: “QUICK”. Was the drawing an intended cover of a book I planned to write?

Chapter 1: Three ducks swim in a pond.

Chapter 2: Something threatens the ducks, maybe a fox or a hunter.

Chapter 3: The ducks warn each other to quickly fly away from the impending danger.

Or maybe I meant to print “QUACK” in the bubbles. In any case, I wish I had that drawing.

Most of my third through fifth grade artistic efforts were encouraged and nurtured by Miss Mattocks, my art teacher in the St. Louis school I attended. My first big project (it might have been for extra credit) was a story with pictures, kind of like a comic strip. I cut strips of butcher paper, taped them edge-to-edge, made vertical lines to denote frames, then drew and captioned my story. As I recall, it was about ten feet long. Miss Mattocks must have liked it because she let me tape it across a wall.

Around the same time, the boy next door and I published a newspaper of original cartoons (i.e., we made them up). We drew our cartoons on both sides of a large sheet of paper, then copied our work, by hand, onto a supply of same-sized paper. Then we hit the street, selling our latest edition to parents, neighbors, and relatives. The price per edition was probably a nickel.

At some point, I wrote the play I mention on my web site. I titled it Alice in Ant Land. The characters included a girl heroine and several ants. The plot had conflict, tension, and resolution. (However, in re-reading Chapter Four of Elizabeth Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction, I think it fell short of the Heroine’s Journey.) Though Alice in Ant Land was set in present time, a few friends and I put on the play in our history class. As playwright, I assumed the role of Alice.

It was interesting and fun to think about my early attempts to draw and write fiction. Best of all, it made me recall the teachers, parents, friends, relatives, and neighbors who inspired and appreciated the budding little artists I suspect we all were.

A Stitch to Die For

A guest blog from my agent and friend, Lois Winston. You’ll see that we share a lot more than what’s discussed at business meetings.

Here’s Lois:

My mother never should have had children. However, she was of a generation where it was expected that married couples produce two, three, four, or more offspring, and she did. Unfortunately, none of us was ever wanted. My mother’s birth control would mysteriously fail every time she suspected my father of having an affair. Being an “honorable” sort (and I use that word in the loosest of terms,) my father would then end the affair—until the next time. I was a rather precocious child, and I figured all of this out myself by the time I was ten years old.

Consequently, my siblings and I grew up in a home that was nothing like what was depicted on family sitcoms of the sixties. In a time of great prosperity in this country, my father lost one job after another because of his temper and arrogance and often took his frustrations out on us. When he was working, he spent most of his money on his girlfriends. My mother was so bent on keeping him from walking out on her that we children often went to bed hungry so that she could afford to serve him steak dinners. Love wasn’t in short supply in our family; it was nonexistent.

I’m not telling you all of this to garner sympathy. My childhood made me the person I am today, and for that I have few regrets. I took the adversity of my childhood and rose above it. I also took my life experiences and channeled them into my writing.

Those of you familiar with my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series may be wondering how that could be. After all, I write humorous amateur sleuth mysteries, and there was nothing humorous about my upbringing. Humor has great healing power, though. Scientists have discovered a direct correlation between laughter and the release of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones of our body. The more we laugh, the better we feel. I choose to laugh, and I choose to write books that I hope will make other people laugh because whether you had an upbringing like mine or not, there’s so much crap going on in the world right now, that we all need as many feel good hormones coursing through our bodies as possible.

I’ve also discovered the cathartic power of revenge—not actual revenge that could land me in prison, but the kind I can produce on the pages of my books. Basing villainous characters on certain family members has a healing power all its own. In my novel world, unlike the real world, the bad guys always wind up paying for their crimes.

One such character is one of the murder victims in my recently released A Stitch to Die For, the fifth full-length book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series. If you’ve read any of my interviews or guest blogs over the last few years, you know that Lucille, Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law, closely resembles my own communist mother-in-law. However, several of the antagonists that have populated my books, both my mysteries and my romances, are drawn from people who were less than kind to me throughout my life. I’m just keeping mum about which characters and which books. You’ll have to figure those out for yourself.

A Stitch to Die For

An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 5

The adventures of reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack continue in A Stitch to Die For, the 5th book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Lois Winston.

Ever since her husband died and left her in debt equal to the gross national product of Uzbekistan, magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack has stumbled across one dead body after another—but always in work-related settings. When a killer targets the elderly nasty neighbor who lives across the street from her, murder strikes too close to home. Couple that with a series of unsettling events days before Halloween, and Anastasia begins to wonder if someone is sending her a deadly message.

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Bio: USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and non-fiction 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 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. Visit Lois/Emma at and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog, Follow everyone on Tsu at, on Pinterest at, and onTwitter @anasleuth. Sign up for her newsletter at