This time of year is tricky for me. The days are getting shorter yet I’m still trying to cram each one with all the same things I do in the longer daylight hours of spring and summer. Striking that balance between physical and mental accomplishments. I do most of my writing at night so fall and winter tend to be periods of higher productivity for me on that front. However, between my day job and writing, I spend a lot of time indoors so I also like (need?) to do outdoor activities that tend to be unsafe or unwise to do after dark. I’m in that twixt & tween state where my body says “go” and my brain says “no.” Some days I try to fit it all in and some days I just get tired. Until I get into a new seasonal routine, either way I feel like I’m running behind. The time change this weekend will be a bit of a relief. But adjusting my expectations is hard. If only my internal clock was as easily reset.Read more
I’m currently polishing up my latest novel. Last weekend, I cried after finishing a particular scene. It’s not because of relief (although there is that) but because it was an emotionally stressful moment for my protagonist. I discovered – by accident – that emotionally inhabiting my characters improves my writing. The accident happened a few years ago. While workshopping a project that will likely never see the light of day, all readers mentioned one chapter as a standout. Some readers cried, others were moved to anger. Everyone used the same phrase as they described, that they “felt blah blah blah.” I stopped listening after the word, “felt.” Something about that one chapter made a strong connection. It had been inspired by a real event that occurred when I was a child. When I wrote the chapter, it was the first time I tapped into my own visceral memories to describe and embellish the event (we’re talking fiction, after all) to experience it through the characters. We’ve all heard everything said or done around an author is pretty much fair game for us. There’s that quote by Anne Lamott, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This isn’t about that, although I do subscribe to that theory, too. Long-time readers of this blog know that I often take note of overheard conversations and interactions I witness. But what I’m talking about is less about what I see and hear and more about what I feel as I write. It’s akin to “method acting,” where I tap into my own experiences of fear, humor, sadness, happiness, whatever, to feel what my characters feel in order to describe their reactions to situations. It’s exhausting but it’s also exhilarating. Hearing from readers that I make them feel something is itself a powerful feeling.Read more
I’m thrilled to announce my first publishing credit in crime fiction! It’s sort of a double debut – my local chapter of Sisters In Crime is publishing their first-ever anthology, Fault Lines: Stories by Northern California Crime Writers. The anthology will be out in time for the Left Coast Crime Conference in March 2019.I wrote the short story, “SegFault,” (geek shorthand for “segmentation fault,” a computer error condition) to see how far I could make it in a blind submission process alongside the award winners and best sellers in the NorCal SinC chapter. It also gave me a fun way to challenge myself to write a cyber crime-themed short story. The word count boundary tested my ability to translate technical concepts into plain English while spinning a compelling yarn. As the release date gets closer, I’ll share details on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, we all have our reasons for writing the things we do – what are some of yours?Read more
This is a big week for our favorite agent, Paula Munier. Her debut mystery, A Borrowing of Bones , came out on Tuesday! The story includes a canine co-star named Elvis (what a great name). This got me thinking, I’ve seen a lot of social media photos of authors with dogs at their feet or cats on their desks. So, tell me, Miss Demeanors, are you on Team Dog or Team Cat? Robin: Personally, I’m Team Dog. I like cats, don’t get me wrong. My family had cats until I was 9. But I’ve had a dog for most of my life since then. They’re a great motivation to get outside – a tired dog is a happy owner. Or something like that. They’re also a burglar alarm that can take you off guard and make you smile in ways Cortana or Alexa never could. I mean, this face…. Susan: I am definitely Team Dog. I have two cockapoos, Bailey and Buster, and they are always by my side. They are playful and loving and very good companions. When things go wrong, we all lie on the floor, and when things go right, we all have a grand time. Once, when I had a truly grand time, we all went to Kentucky Fried Chicken drive thru. But that’s unusual. Michele: Funny, but this is one of the toughest questions of the week for me. I have loved all of the many cats and dogs I’ve had since I was a child and still miss them. But my last dog was Cheddar, an incredibly soulful friend to me. I sensed her nonverbal communications to me and found comfort and wisdom in them. She’s been gone two years and I still miss her terribly. One of the downsides of downsizing and sprouting wings is grappling with whether it is fair to subject beloved pets to globetrotting. I haven’t found the answer. I just know I have a huge hole in my heart. So, I guess the answer is dogs, said the writer in too many words. Alison: Both! I grew up with cats and dogs and even a horse for several years. Some of my favorite childhood friends had four legs. Dogs provide a different kind of friendship than cats or horses do. I remember when I first learned to ride a bike. I was barefoot (a good start) in shorts (even better) and fell onto the ground covered of what we called stickers. They pierced my skin pretty much every where. I limped home, pushing my bike (tears were probably involved). Our family dog sat next to me on the porch, and, with his teeth, started pulling out the stickers.Of course, the universe likes to play with us. I fell in love with a man who has terrible allergies and have a daughter with asthma. No cats or dogs for me, and horses are impractical in a Manhattan apartment. Paula: I could never choose teams. I’m a cat and a dog person. I must have one rescue cat and rescue dog at all times. Dogs for their love and attention and loyalty and devotion, and cats to keep your lap warm in winter. Right now we have our 90-pound rescue Bear, the happiest dog in the world, and Ursula, our 9-pound rescue torbie tabby, Who rules the roost. As every self-respect and cat must do.Cate: I love dogs. Recently, my own dog had his very own lassie moment. We are doing some construction and the kids and dog have not been allowed outside in the yard for a couple weeks as a result. My youngest went outside while I was downstairs cleaning. Westley, my ten year old puggle, came barreling down the stairs, barking his head off, demanding that I follow him into the kitchen. He then went straight to the French door leading to the back and pointed his nose at my kindergartener getting precariously close to a six foot hole in the yard. She lost her iPad that day and had to do “mom” homework for another twenty minutes. He was so clear what he was doing that she was mad at him for telling on her. Alexia: I’m a switch hitter. (Pardon me for mangling my sports references–I am not Team Sports Fan.) I love dogs and cats. I’d love to have both. I only have a cat right now because of my travel schedule. I don’t think at this point in my life I can give a dog the attention he or she needs so, in fairness to the dog, I won’t get one. This is Agatha. I didn’t know I was a cat person before I adopted her. I thought I was strictly a dog lover. Now, I know better. I love both. Tracee: I grew up with dogs, first a Bassett hound, followed by bloodhound and St. Bernard. Now I am a Jack Russell terrier devotee, mainly because they are both sweet and stubborn. Alvaro and Laika are going to be treated to a ship board adventure this fall when I sail with them on the Queen Mary 2 to join my husband in Europe. Hopefully they will enjoy their time at sea as much as they enjoy all their other “human activities” with us (hoping for a breakfast in bed treat being a standing favorite!).Read more
I recently finished a major edit of my latest novel and sent it off to my agent. Like most writers, I’ve got notes and synopses for multiple new projects but I wanted to try something different. When I’ve changed day jobs, I take a break in between leaving one company and starting something new. It’s a time to reflect, let go of the past, and embrace the new. I call it a “palate cleanser.” After writing 2 standalone novels back-to-back, I decided to try that with my writing. Take a break. Let go of the most recent characters who occupied my imagination every day for the last 13 months. Catch up on my reading. Do some projects around the house. Take a couple of weeks away before launching into the next book. It lasted 4 days. The leading characters in my new WIP demand to be heard. They want their world built. The secondary cast paces anxiously in the wings, throwing their hands in the air, screaming, “What about us?” Is it habit? Maybe compulsion? I don’t know. I don’t question my muse. I embrace her like the dear friend she is, grateful for the strength of our bond. How about you? Do you take breaks between writing books or stories?Read more
More than crime fiction brought the Miss Demeanors together. We all also happen to be clients of the fabulous literary agent, Paula Munier. Paula’s debut mystery, A Borrowing of Bones, came out yesterday! Publisher’s Weekly says, “The portrayal of working dogs will appeal to fans of David Rosenfelt and Margaret Mizushima. The blend of lovingly detailed setting and lively characters, both human and canine, makes this a series to watch.” Friend of the Miss Demeanors and #1 NY Times bestselling author, Lisa Gardner, adds, “Finally, a suspense novel that combines my two loves: a thrilling police procedural, assisted by two fabulous working dogs. A one-sit read that will make you happy you did.” Robin: Your day job is a literary agent. How common is it for agents to write in the genre they represent? Paula: Lots of agents write. Evan Marshall writes writing books and mystery novels, Donald Maass writes novels and nonfiction. Edwin Hill, whose debut Little Comfort just came out, works for Macmillan. Jill Santopolo is an acquisitions editor who also writes bestselling novels for both children and adults. The list goes on and on.
Robin: You previously wrote a non-fiction book about a dog (Fixing Freddie) and, now, a dog is featured prominently in your debut mystery. As a lifelong dog-lover myself, I have my own thoughts about this, but what do you think makes our 4-legged friends such compelling characters and so much fun to write?
Paula: My dogs and cats have been a big part of my life since I was a little girl. They’ve always been my friends—sometimes my only friends when I was an Army brat moving from school to school with no siblings and no friends in the new neighborhood yet. My pets filled the void. I think that people like to read about the real world, and pets are part of our real world. Certainly, I was inspired by the real-life hero working dogs I met through Mission K9 Rescue and other organizations. To write about dogs who are literally saving our lives, both in civilian and military life, is a huge honor and privilege. Dogs help people with disabilities, they sniff out bombs and drugs, they rescue the lost and the injured, and more. Dogs can do all kinds of amazing things. I like writing about dogs, and I like reading about dogs—and I admire the writers who do it well. As an agent, I look for such writers, because there’s usually a market for their stories. In fact, I always tell aspiring writers that if they can write from the point of view of a dog or a cat and pull it off, I’ll sign them tomorrow. I personally don’t dare to try that. But look at how successful the writers are who can, such as Spencer Quinn in his popular Chet and Bernie series or Garth Stein in his bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain. That makes for great storytelling.
Robin: A Borrowing of Bones is the first book of a series. Did knowing that you’re creating a cast intended to span multiple books impact your process?
Paula: Whenever you write a mystery series, you have to populate that first book with people who can provide a supporting cast for your protagonist. I knew I needed that supporting cast, and I wrote many of the supporting characters right into the story in the first draft—but my editor wanted more and so I gave him more. If you go back and study the first novels in series that you love—which is what I did when I realized I was going to write a series—you’ll see the seeds of subsequent books right there in the debuts. I reread Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel and Louise Penny’s first Inspector Gamache novel and Elly Griffiths’s first Ruth Galloway novel and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s first Clare Fergusson novel and that proved enormously educational for me. Robin: How did your role as a teacher in the Writer’s Digest First Ten Pages Boot Camp inform your experience as an author?
Paula: Ironically, I never set out to write A Borrowing of Bones as a novel. What I set out to do was come up with a sample opening chapter that I could use in The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings to show how you need to revise a story and polish a story before you try to shop it. Because most of us editors and agents don’t give you much past that first page—it’s either there on that first page or not. What we’re looking for is that feeling you get when you open a new book from your favorite author. You’re in your favorite chair, you’ve got your glass of wine or your cup of tea, and you turn to that first page and you read the first couple lines and you just go, “Ahhhhhhh,” because you know you’re in good hands. You know you’re in for a good ride. It’s right there on the first page. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that feeling, and I was trying to teach writers how to evoke that feeling in The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings. I had just been to this fundraiser for Mission K9 Rescue, an organization that devotes itself to rescuing and finding forever homes for abandoned military working dogs. The Army takes care of its dogs, most of the time anyway, but the dogs provided by defense contractors often end up with very uncertain futures. The fab thriller writer Leo Maloney hosted this fundraiser where we got to meet the dog handlers and their working dogs, be they cops and drug- sniffing dogs or soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs or game wardens and search-and-rescue dogs. I fell in love with these dogs and their handlers. I needed that first chapter, and I couldn’t use anybody else’s first chapter because I was going to use it as an exercise and revise it and revise it over the course of the book. So, I wrote a sample chapter inspired by these dogs and their handlers. My agent Gina Panettieri read it and loved it and said, “You should finish this book.” Ultimately, I have Gina and Phil Sexton of Writer’s Digest to thank for A Borrowing of Bones. Phil came to me and said, “We’d like you to write a book based on your First Ten Pages Boot Camp.” That book became The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, and the opening chapter that I wrote to use as a sample became A Borrowing of Bones.
Robin: As a non-fiction author of a series of acclaimed books on the craft of writing, how is this debut – a work of fiction – different for you?
Paula: This book is different for me because all my life I wanted to be a mystery writer. It was not a desire that I necessarily articulated until later in my life, but I always thought that if I ever had the time, I’d want to write the kind of mystery I love to read. For me to do this now is a dream come true. It’s been on my secret writer’s bucket list for a very, very long time. It just goes to show that it’s never too late. I had given up on this dream and I thought, “Well, you’re never going to have time or the energy or the effort or the wherewithal to ever do this, and that’s okay.” Then I wrote that first chapter—and because it was just an exercise for a writing book, I wrote it just for fun. I threw in everything I loved—Vermont and Shakespeare and vets and working dogs and the woods—I even threw in Pablo Neruda. (The title comes from a line from a Pablo Neruda poem.) Let that be a lesson to all of you writers out there: It’s never too late. Just do it. Robin: Find Paula’s debut, A Borrowing of Bones, at your local bookstore or favorite online bookseller!
I know this is a blog for writers but I can’t let this particular day go by without acknowledgment. On this day in 2001, I was just beginning my career as a cyber first responder. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with and support the efforts of the men and women in law enforcement agencies ever since. Thank you for all you do.Read more
While running errands, I spotted the item in this photograph at my local shopping center. It’s a fitness-tracking bracelet on curb wall between stores. Completely unbidden, my writer-mind went into overdrive: – Why is it there? It seemed carefully placed yet there was no one around.
– Did someone leave it there intentionally or did someone happen up on it in the parking lot and placed it there on the walkway, where it would be obvious to the person who lost it? – Did someone steal the item from someone they know then leave it there as a taunt?
– Did someone get disgusted or frustrated by their lack of steps or whatever and they left it behind themselves?
– Did someone intentionally leave it at the shopping center as a red herring, knowing these bracelets have GPS trackers?
In the time I spent shopping for groceries and getting a birthday card for my mother-in-law, this little item I spotted in passing sparked ideas for a character and a story. I snapped the picture then sat in my car and jotted it all down.
I find inspiration all around me, sometimes in the most random places. Where do your ideas come from?
I follow a lot of my peers on Twitter, as I’m sure we all do. In the last few weeks I’ve noticed birthday acknowledgments of literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. This prompted me to look up other authors born in July, like me 🙂 The list includes people like JK Rowling, Emily Bronte, Aldous Huxley, Cormac McCarthy, and the author of the “book” for West Side Story, Arthur Laurents (one of my favorite musicals of all time). Who knew it was such a banner month? Which authors were born the same month as you? Tracee: At the top of the August list is Dorothy Parker! She and I are joined by Ray Bradbury, Conrad Aiken, Herman Melville, Isabel Allende, PD James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Guy de Maupassant, Wendell Berry (Kentucky born so I’m extra happy about this), Alfred Lord Tennyson, Daniel Keyes, Thomas De Quincey, Stieg Larsson, Georgette Heyer, Charles Bukowski, Annie Prouix, CS Forester, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Goethe and my personal hero, Leo Tolstoy! We Leos are a proud and, I suppose it’s fair to say, prolific and diverse bunch. Michele: Fun question, Robin. I’m not sure whether I should start with Stephen King or Agatha Christie. Then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Mary Oliver, Roald Dahl, Truman Capote, D.H. Lawrence, Ken Kesey, Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, and Upton Sinclair. Not to forget George R.R. Martin, Phyllis Whitney, Ann Beattie O.Henry, James Fenimore Cooper, Fawn Brodie, Robert Benchley, Jane Smiley, and Fannie Flagg. Honestly, with all of those September birthday parties, I barely get a word written! Tracee: Michele, note that Leo Tolstoy makes the list for both August 28 and September 9 because the Russian Empire changed its calendar! Yeah! He deserves two months, mine and yours.Michele: We’ll just have two parties for him 🙂 Tracee: Likely this is what Leo would expect! Robin: Geez September sounds awesome! And here I was feeling so pleased with July… Alison: This is a fun question! For February: James Joyce, Ina Garten (love her cookbooks!), Gertrude Stein, Betty Friedan, Charles Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, Jules Verne, John Grisham, Alice Walker, Boris Pasternak, Judy Blume, Matt Groening, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Anaïs Nin, Chuck Palahniuk, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Oh, and John Steinbeck. Alexia: I had to look this up:James Herriot (1916)Frank Herbert (1920)Elmore Leonard (1925)Virgil (70 BC)Roxane Gay (1974)Oscar Wilde (1854)Ursula K. Le Guin (1929)Carrie Fisher (1956)Augusten Burroughs (1965)Zadie Smith (1975)Dylan Thomas (1914)John Keats (1795). Robin: I sense a theme about your sense of humor 😉 Cate: This is from Bookish… edited by me: Do you share a birthday with your favorite author? Here, we take a look at novelists, poets, journalists, and other writers born during the month of December.Elizabeth Berg (1948)George Saunders (1958)Ann Patchett (1963)Joseph Conrad (1857)Willa Cather (1873)Noam Chomsky (1928)Emily Dickinson (1830)Gustave Flaubert (1821)Jane Austen (1775)Donna Tartt (1963)Mary Higgins Clark (1927)Stephenie Meyer (1973)Henry Miller (1891)Jean Toomer (1894)David Sedaris (1956)Rudyard Kipling (1865)Nicholas Sparks (1965) Susan: Alexia, I’m October too! I’d add in Graham Greene, John Le Carre and Elmore Leonard. Paula: I was born in March, just like Albert Einstein. We’re Pisces, the dreamers. My fellow fish include three of my favorite writers: Alice Hoffman, Dr. Suess, and John Updike. How about you, dear readers? What literary luminaries were born the same month as you?Read more
There’s been a running joke throughout my career as a criminal investigator that my Google works better than other people’s Google. I routinely find tidbits and data points that others can’t. It’s a handy skill to have as an investigator but it stumped me for years, wondering where that skill came from. It occurred to me as I’ve been finishing up the current revision of my latest novel – it’s because I’m a writer. As writers, we learn to describe everything from facial expressions to a city block to worlds that exist only in our imaginations. We hide clues in plain sight. We figure out ways to say the same thing eighteen different ways. In short, we use our words. This is a critical skill in research. Whether it’s researching the aurora borealis or the Aurora Incident, the method is the same. Start with the topic at its highest level then drill down or pivot on points of interest. Hone the search terms as new ways to approach the subject reveal themselves by what’s turned up. Keep going until you get to the level of detailed information you intended to find, and keep notes about the nuggets you found along the way. Not finding what you want? Find another way to phrase it. When I was little, before the days when I could search for information using only a cell phone, I discovered that libraries had information desks. I could call the information desk of my local library and they would research any question I dreamed up. It got to the point where I would invariably ask more questions when they called me back with the previous answer. After one particular week in the summer when I kept asking more and more questions, the research librarian spent an afternoon with me to show me how to do the research myself. The reason for all my questions? I was writing a story. I owe a lot to that librarian. That one skill set changed my life. I wish I remembered her name. I think I’ll Google it.