Category : Books

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

***

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

Reading Habits

A frequent question at panel discussions and bookstore events is What one book would you take to a deserted island?

I heard Margaret Atwood answer the question during an interview a few years ago: “Only one book? I’d take the biggest book I could find,” she said.

Same here!

But apart from that unrealistic “what if,” I’m what you might call a heavy reader—3 book clubs, hardbacks and paperbacks everywhere, and always a full e-reader. But for some reason, none of my four main protagonists are readers.

I’m not sure why no one in my gallery of characters is even a light reader. They confine themselves to literature that’s pertinent to their jobs or interests, almost never including fiction or reading for relaxation. Nor do they ever discuss books, a favorite pastime of mine.

Here’s the lineup and their reading habits:

• Dr. Gloria Lamerino, retired physicist, reads Physics Today, Scientific American, assorted technical papers, and The New Yorker cartoons. That’s it.

• Geraldine Porter, retired English teacher and miniaturist, often quotes Shakespeare, but not once in nine books has she picked up a volume and had a quiet read. She does occasionally leaf through a miniatures or crafts magazine.

• Professor Sophie Knowles, college math teacher, reads and contributes to mathematics journals and puzzle magazines. No fiction.

Finally, with my 4th series, I might have a reader.

• Cassie Miller (ADDRESSED TO KILL, July 2017), postmaster in a small Massachusetts town, reads crime fiction. Though I don’t give specific titles, I do have Cassie commenting on certain plot devices, and actually trying to read crime novels before bedtime. Granted she’s quickly distracted and turns to focusing on “the case” at hand.

One reason my amateur sleuths don’t read: they’re very busy people! In general, they solve a murder case in a week or so, sometimes sooner. That’s pretty quick, considering real cops sometimes take months, often years. I think this is typical of amateur sleuths—they crowd more into one day than the clichéd one-armed paper hanger, maintaining jobs, snooping around crime scenes and suspects’ desks, and sometimes juggling children on their hips.

Also, reading is very passive, as opposed to, say, a car chase, a shoot-out, or even a quiet stalking scene. It’s hard to make a reading scene exciting.

She stretched out on the couch, put on her reading glasses, picked up a book, found the bookmark, opened the book,  . . .

See what I mean?

Star of a TV movie!

Here’s a twist on this topic. A few years ago, a book by Bay Area screenwriter and true crime writer, James Dalessandro, was made into a movie for TV. In one scene, Jane’s Aunt Gertrude is pictured sitting comfortably, reading. Her book of choice: my first release, a hardback copy of The Hydrogen Murder. She holds it up, the turquoise cover visible, plain as day.

Suddenly an intruder breaks in and murders her!

The book falls out of her hands and onto the floor, cover side up, immortalized as part of the crime scene. Later in the show, crime scene photos show the book as it lay on the floor near Aunt Gertrude’s feet.

So, although my characters aren’t reading, someone is reading my characters!

A Day in the Life

Thanks to Dru Ann Love for inspiring this blog. Dru is known for her blogging and extreme fandom, so much so that she won the Raven Award this year:

Here’s my latest post on Dru’s blog last week.

Third P0stmistress Mystery

A Day in the Life of Cassie Miller, Postmistress

By Jean Flowers

I’m beginning to think I’ve brought a curse on my hometown.

Before I returned to North Ashcot, Massachusetts as its postmistress, the town was relatively crime free. A few B&Es and a carjacking or two per year, some shoplifting and teen vandalism, all quickly solved. While I’d been building my post office career in Boston, my hometown rolled along peacefully, the loudest noises coming from the soccer field. No screams in the night, no gun shots.

Since I came back, however, the crime rate has soared. I heard someone in line at the post office joke that in our zip code, COD is beginning to mean Cause of Death. Really! I’d deny it, but just a few minutes ago, I heard about a third murder among my friends. Dennis Somerville, physics professor at the local community college and guitarist for The Ashcots, our neighborhood band, has been shot in his home. The artificially pretty lady on the TV news has called it a robbery-gone-bad, but I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that there’s more to it.

For one thing, Dennis stormed up to my counter yesterday, demanding that I investigate threatening letters he’d received. How I wish I’d paid attention. Instead, I’d invoked the postal service’s official investigative body. As if that were a paragon of speedy justice. For another thing, lately, when I was involved in any way, a crime was never as simple as surprising a thief.

Right after the news, my phone rang and it was my BFF Sunni on the line, Police Chief Sunni Smargon, to most citizens. Another feeling washed over me—that she was about to give me orders to stay out of the Somerville murder case. I was not a sworn police officer, did not have a badge, blah, blah, blah.

I was lucky that the retired postmaster, Ben Gentry, was pining for his old job and only too happy to fill in for me. Which left me free to walk around Dennis’s campus and also casually interview his fellow musicians. I was also lucky that my boyfriend, Quinn Martindale, was a great cook and loved to take over my kitchen, thus freeing me to snoop around and trail suspects, should I be so inclined.

Which I was. And which got me into a bit of trouble, and—maybe—danger. The result was—well, never mind. It’s all written down if you care to read it.

The good news is that I’m fine and back at my job, so I don’t see what all the fuss was about my health and safety in the first place. Will I follow orders the next time? We’ll just have to see.

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.

A Special Architecture

A few weeks ago, I got a query from a blogger for the Eichler Network. (Yes, Eichler owners are networked.) He’d heard that the protagonist in my Miniature Mysteries, Gerry Porter, lived in an Eichler, and would I be willing to do an interview on how, why, etc. Eichler? Of course I would.

Briefly: When I planned the series based on a miniaturist who builds dollhouses, I thought she should have an architect for a husband, and she should live in a special kind of house. My good friend, author Margaret Hamilton, had just moved into an Eichler home a couple of miles from me. Perfect!

If you’ve never seen an Eichler, you’re in for a treat. The floor plan is built around this model, with variations, but the main feature is an atrium with plants of your choice and a skylight that can be rolled back to the open sky.

The phone interview with blogger David Weinstein resulted in this fun blog, complete with photos, where all questions are answered.

Travels with Camille

Revere Beach, where it all began

If scheduling works out, I’ll be in Bethesda, MD when you’re reading this. Maryland is on my short list of places I’m willing to travel to.

I’ve never been a traveler. I was nearly 40 years old when I first traveled west of the Hudson River. I’ve never wanted to go somewhere just to go there, or just to see something different. I’m one of those Yankees who believes everything anyone needs by way of art, science, and culture is on the Eastern seaboard, in the triumvirate of Boston-NYC-Washington DC. Maybe a little side trip to Philadelphia. That’s enough concentrated diversity, not to mention weather, to satisfy me.

But eventually work and other issues sent me traveling around the country.

And who doesn’t have this kind of travel story: sleeping on the linoleum at Chicago’s O’Hare in the middle of a blizzard; being stuck in the smoking section (years ago) as if there really is a difference between yes- and no- when you’re all in a cabin 30000+ feet up; inspecting a nuclear power plant in a town where “good restaurant” means a choice of vending machines in the lobby of a motel with a number in its name, the kind of establishment where you sleep with your clothes on and your purse under your pillow.

Luggage lost, luggage stolen. (Picture hand across brow here): I’ve seen it all.

I wonder why I’ve never given any of my characters a bad travel experience—except for one fender bender in New York City. Maybe because I think every reader would be able to say: I’ve been there, and I can top that.

In fact, my characters have hardly traveled at all—another one of the ways authors insert themselves into characters without being aware of it.

It took four books to get Gloria Lamerino of the Periodic Table series out of Revere, Massachusetts. It took eight books for Geraldine Porter of the Miniature Mysteries to leave fictional Lincoln Point, California. Sophie Knowles of the Professor Sophie Knowles mysteries stayed put in Massachusetts through all four books, as does Cassie Miller of the Postmistress series. (Jaunts to New Hampshire hardly count as travel.)

In theory, it would be very interesting to put a character in a different locale from their original setting. We’d get a chance to see what happens to her in a new environment, how she reacts to things she’s not used to: unfamiliar weather and culture, the idiosyncrasies of regional language.

Come to think of it, I’d love to see how the coastal Gloria would fare in Montana, how Geraldine would do in Nebraska, how Sophie would adapt to Texas, how Cassie might enjoy the US Postal Museum in Washington DC.

I’m talking myself into a whirlwind tour with my protagonists. What kind of luggage will they have, how will they dress?

It will work, as long as I don’t have to go with them.

World’s Biggest Typo

This is an old story, from the days of my first book, back in the ’90s, but you may not have heard it.

The Preamble

Twice a year, members of Sisters in Crime of Northern California host a “showcase” where we’re invited to read from our newly published work. One after the other, usually about 8 or 9 of us at any given event, stand behind the podium and read a selected passage. Maybe the first chapter, maybe a particularly funny or gripping section from the middle. We have 5 minutes.

Question: How many typos can you expect to find in an already printed book in 5 minutes?

Answer: I don’t know, and I certainly don’t want to find out.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, I never read from my latest release, or any book of mine that’s been published. I know I couldn’t stand it if I came across a typo and could do nothing about it. In fact, I never even open my books once they’re published. Call it Typophobia.

At the showcases, I read from a Work in Progress – that way if there’s a typo or an awkward phrase, I can fix it on the next draft.

The Incident

I guess it serves me right that one day at a signing, I came across the WBT—the World’s Biggest Typo in one of my books.

A woman bought a copy of “The Hydrogen Murder,” in hardback, from the bookseller and brought it to the table for me to sign. At least, on the outside, it looked like “The Hydrogen Murder.” The wrap-around paper cover was right, the flap copy and photo were correct.

I opened the book, ready to pen my name. But something was off. What was Simon & Schuster’s logo doing on the first page? Avalon was my publisher at the time.

I kept going, flipping pages, gasping as I went. The printer (or someone!) had put the entire text of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ between the covers of my book. I removed the paper cover and saw that the printing on the hardback spine was correct for “The Hydrogen Murder.” In the photo, you might be able to make out the flap copy (mine) on one side, and the title page (Bradbury’s) on the other.

I’m sorry to tell you that there is no resolution here—the bookseller had no idea where she’d gotten the book; no other book in her stock of Hydrogen Murders was like this one. I did, of course, keep the book, making sure the purchaser’s money was refunded. It remains in my inventory as one of a kind.

I’ve often wondered if the great Ray Bradbury ever opened one of his copies of “Fahrenheit 451″ and found “The Hydrogen Murder,” by Camille Minichino.

If so, it might not have fazed him—after all, he wrote sci fi.

Can you top that for a typo? I’m willing to relinquish my title to the WBT for a good story.

Success for Women

One last post during Women’s History Month.

Here’s a paperback from my shelves — this is one of those no-need-for-a-long-comment reviews.

Note the title of this series: AMY VANDERBILT SUCCESS PROGRAM FOR WOMEN (across the top), and the title of this volume, by Florence Brobeck: SERVING FOOD ATTRACTIVELY.

Inside there’s all you need to know about giving unforgettable parties—from the importance of garnishes to sections on shrimp, horseradish, lemons and limes. And, under C, caviar and celery. Recipes abound. I was tempted to try the one on spumoni until I saw that one ingredient is instant nonfat dry milk crystals. It did take the magic out of spumoni for me, and where would I even buy those crystals?

The book was published in 1966. I would have guessed 1956. I wonder if it’s still selling with a certain demographic.

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?