Category : Books

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?

Best of 2016

In case you missed this on the LadyKillers Blog. It’s the time for “Best Ofs”.

My favorite book of 2016 came to me by way of a swag bag shared by Ann Parker.
She knew I was mad about Malcolm Mackay’s trilogy THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE, HOW A GUNMAN SAYS GOODBYE, AND THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER. If you love a good hit man story, as I do, these books are for you.

So I was ready for Mackay’s newest offering, THE NIGHT THE RICH MEN BURNED. Here’s how the Prologue opens:

He ended up unconscious and broken on the floor of a warehouse, penniless and alone. He was two weeks in hospital, unemployable thereafter, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, for a few weeks beforehand, he had money. Not just a little money, but enough to show off with, and that was the impression that stuck.

I look for three things when rating a book: character, story, and writing. Mackay is a 10 on all counts. In the first lines (above) you know this character: You know what he values, and what he will do to get it. You have arrived in the middle of a story: the man is unconscious, penniless, and alone. And you have great writing: not a wasted word (also not a gerund or an -ly adverb!).

I’m in a few book clubs, one of which is a mystery reading group at a library. We begin each meeting by rating the book, from 10

I’m almost always amazed at ratings.
“I’d give this an 8 or a 9,” Edna might say.
“But the story was weak and there were 3 subplots that weren’t wrapped up.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Edna will say with a shrug. “But I liked the woman.”

or

“I’d give this story an 8 or a 9,” Ralph might say.
“But the writing was terrible. It could have been written by a third grader.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Ralph will say. “But the story was good.”

and so on.

Apparently, I’m the fussy one, demanding all three criteria are met. I’m curious about you and your rating policies. What does it take for you to give a book a 10? a 1?

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.

Classic Thrills

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to include a short piece on classic crime stories in the MWA NorCal newsletter. Here it is, reproduced with my permission.

You always remember your firsts.

The first time words on a page brought me to tears was when Beth March died in “Little Women.” The first time words frightened me to death occurred when an arrogant, drunken Fortunato was lured into the vault in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Imagine my thrill when I realized how much more excitement and suspense awaited me in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Next I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the dark guilt of a murderer is his undoing: I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! (Poe was not one to stint on exclamation points!) “The Pit and the Pendulum” gave me the most meticulous description of a torture chamber: Any death but that of the pit! And surely no character descriptions in literature can match those in “The Man of the Crowd,” the art of following a stranger who captures your fancy.

Still, “The Cask of Amontillado” remains my favorite: I plastered it up. Surely one of the most chilling lines in crime fiction.

A place to curl up with a good thriller

•  Care to share your reading “firsts?”