10 questions

When writing about a character, I like to ask her 10 questions. (Actually, I’m more likely to ask her 1,000 questions, but that would be a very long blog post.) 1. What is your happiest memory? 2. What do you worry about before you go to sleep? 3. What’s your favorite tree? (That was an easy one for Maggie Dove. An oak.) 4. What do you regret? 5. Do you like chocolate candy or Skittles, and why? 6. If your best friend’s husband flirted with you, would you flirt back? 7. Do you believe in evil? (This became an issue in Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency.) 8. What scares you? 9. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it? 10. What’s your favorite book? The more questions I ask, the more real the character becomes to me, and what I love is when a character surprises me. When I asked Maggie Dove about her happiest memory, she told me about an afternoon she wore a red dress and surprised her husband. I didn’t see that coming, but I loved it and went with it and it’s one of my favorite moments in the book. What questions would you add to the list?

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What's in a name?

I teach novel-writing for Gotham Writers in New York City. My classroom is in an office building that looks right out on to Times Square. So from my window, I see something like this picture. Even when my class gets out, at 10 pm, it still looks like that.  Sometimes it’s a little scary. The other night I left work and walked by two people, arms folded across their chests, sleeping in a box shaped to look like a coffin. But for the most part working in Times Square is exhilarating, and I feel like I’m tapping into the energy that makes New York City so vital. My classes tend to reflect that vitality. My students come from all over the world–from Haiti and Dubai and London and Pakistan and of course, from the United States too. Their names are often unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a suburban part of Long Island, in a time and place where most of my friends were named Betty or Marcy or Patty. So it’s always a worry for me that I am either going to forget or mispronounce one of my student’s names. So I’ve hit on this writing exercise I do at the start of each class, in which I have each student write about how she came to have her name. The stories are always fascinating. Some students are named after a relative. A surprising number are named after characters in TV shows. Others have names that are completely made up, which is fun too. For example, one of my students has a name that has a syllable from each of her mother’s best friends. When I hear the stories behind the names, it becomes much easier for me to remember who the people are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the characters in my mysteries. Usually I have a pretty good idea, but one character gave me a really hard time in my new book, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency. She’s the person who comes to hire Maggie. She’s rich, proud, a bit distant, of French descent. She’s also a devoted caretaker to her mother. She’s essentially a good person in a prickly package. Originally I was going to call her Augusta, and have people in the village call her Gussie. But the more I wrote the name Gussie, the less it felt like her. I spent hours going through directories of French names. Jacqueline? Too fancy. Claudette? Too sexy. On and on, until finally I found the name Racine. Not a name that has a nickname. Just a slicing sort of name. It fit perfectly, and that’s how Racine Stern came to be in my book. Where does your name come from?      

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Words of advice from Agatha Christie

 The other day I wrote about being a cozy author, and there is no author cozier than Agatha Christie. She invented the genre, and sometimes I like to look through her quotes for inspiration. Here are some of my favorites. 1. “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ”  2. “Do you know my friend that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desire and aptitudes?” ― Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies 3. “The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.” ― Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 4. “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.” ― Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles 5. “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.” ― Agatha Christie 6. “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.” ― Agatha Christie, An Autobiography 7. “It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.” ― Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 8. “What good is money if it can’t buy happiness?” ― Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit 9. “There is too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I must concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so busy punishing ourselves.” ― Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger 10. “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.” ― Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage

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Embracing failure

The other day I saw a wonderful clip of J.K. Rowling on Facebook. She was talking about how she struggled with failure for a long time, but in the end concluded that it stripped away the inessential and gave her the freedom to write Harry Potter. Something she said stuck with me: “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.” I suspect every writer in the world knows just what she’s talking about. Listening to her speak reminded me of my first novel, which was a fairly epic failure. I’m not referring here to The Fiction Class, which was published by Penguin in 2008. I like to think of that as a success. But I’m thinking of the first novel I wrote, titled PITCH. I started writing it in the mid-1990s, having spent many years writing and publishing short stories. I figured I knew what I was doing in that area, and so how difficult would it be to switch over. The novel is about a woman who trained to be a concert pianist, but suffered from stage-fright, and so was happy to walk away from that career when she became a wife and mother. She thought she was happy, anyway, until one day her old lover showed up on her doorstep. He was a great pianist, but he was fascinated by the music of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and he was convinced that he’d become possessed by an evil spirit after having performed one of Scriabin’s sonatas that was said to call up the devil. (In fact, some pianists have died after performing it.) He needed her help, but that involved her betraying her husband and coming to terms with choices she had made. I spent seven years on that novel. The first chapter was fabulous and won a best novel prize at a big conference. Publishers were interested. One young editor read it and wanted it, but when she gave it to her senior editor, she said, “I just don’t know what this about.” I revised it. I resubmit. I learned how to play the piano. I was awful. My mother used to make fun of me. I revised it. I got wonderful rejections, but everyone said it was just a little odd. Or else they’d say if I’d written it ten years earlier, it would have been published in a minute. I changed the point of view. I changed the ending. I changed the middle, and finally I changed the beginning, which was the one part I knew really worked. Finally, after seven years of this, I put it aside. I then spent four years working on a novel titled COURTING DISASTER, about a woman who gets engaged 17 times, and then finally falls in love. That didn’t sell either, though I think it had a better narrative arc and best of all, there was a character in it, Chuck Jones, who I loved, and who became an important character in THE FICTION CLASS. I wish both those novels had sold, but they didn’t, and yet I learned so much from them. I consider them my very long M.F.A. degrees. Or perhaps Ph.Ds. I never would have chosen to work for so long on something that didn’t work, but I don’t regret what I did. I gave it my heart. The other day, I was thinking about a scene I might like to write in a new MAGGIE DOVE. There’s a piano teacher in the series, Arthur Cavanaugh, who doesn’t have a big role, but he could. In fact, it’s possible an old lover of his will show up, and will be concerned that she’s possessed by Scriabin’s ghost. I don’t know. Just a thought.

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On being cozy

 I’m proud to say I’m a cozy mystery author, though I didn’t actually intend to be one. I started off writing a novel about a woman who taught a mystery writing class, who turned into Maggie Dove, who turned into a Sunday School teacher, who turned into a private detective, who turned into the protagonist of a cozy mystery series. So something I’ve been thinking about a lot is, What does it mean to write cozies? What are the rules? What are the limitations? And I a chance to explore all those questions when I was on a panel at Bouchercon last weekend.  Here are some of the questions I was asked (I think. I was in such a daze, I’m not sure.) And here are some of the answers I meant to give, and possibly did. The questions came from Cathy Pickens, our fabulous moderator. What does “cozy” mean to you? As distinguished from what other kinds of mysteries or crime stories? For me, cozy means intimacy. Your protagonist is not a professional who’s paid to solve a crime. She’s someone who gets drawn into solving a mystery because it touches her in a personal way. For example, the protagonist of my mystery, Maggie Dove, is a woman who has spent 20 years mourning the loss of her daughter. She’s locked into a sort of paralysis, until her miserable neighbor is murdered and she finds his body on her front lawn. And, the primary suspect is her late daughter’s fiance. Maggie will do anything to protect that man, even if it means coming out of her isolation and reentering the world. The other thing that characterizes cozies, for me, is that although there’s bloodshed, it takes place off scene. Recently I was reading Stephen King’s wonderful Mr. Mercedes. He has a character die in a very visceral way by strychnine poisoning and I thought, Nope. That would not happen in a Maggie Dove mystery.  How important is setting in your books? What role does it play in choosing what to write? Setting is probably what drew me to write the story in the first place. I live in a beautiful little village about 35 miles north of New York City. There are about 6,000 residents. Because I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, I can feel confident that when I walk down Main Street, I’m going to run into someone I know. We have Halloween parades and Fourth of July fireworks and when people get sick, the owner of the deli will often send them food. At the same time, living so close to Manhattan, we have a number of high-powered sorts moving in. That creates an interesting tension, which gives a person such as myself a lot to write about. For Maggie Dove, an additional problem was that she realized the murderer came from her village, and if that was the case, it meant it was someone she knew. And probably loved. You all write about ordinary people in unusual situations. Do you ever have trouble writing about death and difficulty while keeping it light and cozy? One of the ways I believe I deviate from the cozy norm is that I don’t think it has to be light and frothy. Certainly there’s humor. I think there’s a lot of joy and laughing in Maggie Dove. But she is grappling with death and grieving and I think many people, particularly after a certain age, are dealing with such things. I wanted to be able to write about hard topics, but hopefully in a comforting way. Do you kill off more men or more women? So far, I have been completely even-handed!      

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The 10 Best Things About Bouchercon

This past weekend I went to New Orleans to take part in the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, which consists of hordes of writers and readers coming together to talk about mysteries. This was my first time at Bouchercon and my first time in New Orleans and I am bubbling over with all the wonderful experiences I had. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the best. 1. Drinking a Bulleit Old-Fashioned. It was pink and frothy and I won’t say it was strong, but I didn’t have anything else to drink for the next three days and I was perfectly happy. (Here’s a recipe, if you want to make one: https://www.bulleit.com/whiskey-drinks/frontier-old-fashioned/)   2. Seeing the Mississippi River. I’m sure I have seen it before over the long course of my life (perhaps when I was on the Lewis and Clark expedition). But I haven’t seen it lately, and when you look at it it’s hard not to be moved by the important role it’s played in our country’s history. 3. Talking to private detective and author Ben Keller, who gave me many fabulous suggestions for how to make Maggie Dove a better detective. I won’t share them now. You’ll have to read the book! 4. Being on a panel. My panel was titled, Endless Harmony, and it took place at 9:00 on Saturday morning. Of course I spent all Friday night agonizing, but when I actually got there, it was so much fun. Cathy Pickens was the moderator, and fellow cozy writers Kathi Daley, Sherry Harris, Sara Rosett and Julie Anne Lindsey were on the panel. Dru Ann Love was our time-keeper. Afterwards someone told me it looked like we were all great friends, and it felt that way too. 5. Walking around the French Quarter, which is just as beautiful as in the movies. 6. Going to the Sisters-in-Crime breakfast and hearing about all the wonderful things they have planned. They are a great resource for all mystery writers. 7. Going to the book bazaar. This was a huge room filled with books and everyone who attended Bouchercon got tickets that allowed them to pick out 6 or 8 (I forget) free books. I’m happy to report that there were bound copies of Maggie Dove there and they were all taken (and not just by me!) 8. Eating. So much good food. Praline bread pudding and beignets covered in confectioner’s sugar. And that was just breakfast. 9. Attending a dinner for Random House authors at Brennan’s restaurant. That had to be a career high, especially when I walked into the room and saw Lee Child and shook his hand. 10. Meeting the Miss Demeanors in person. (Okay, I saved the best for last). What a joy it was to meet everyone. (Or almost everyone, because Alexia is in Ireland, doing research.) We had great meals, we talked, we planned, we chatted with our fabulous agent, Paula Munier, who worked the whole time lining up opportunities for us. It was magical. So that was Bouchercon, or some of it. Next year, Toronto!  

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What's your name?

I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers in Manhattan. The hardest part of my job is not the critiquing, or the lecturing, or the reading–though that’s certainly work. But the hardest thing to do is make sure that everyone likes each other. Or at least respects each other, and after years of working on this, I’ve discovered that the best predictor of whether a class is going to go well is whether people refer to each other by their names. Now you may think that sounds easy. All you have to do is introduce people and they’ll know each other’s names. But you’d be wrong. Most of us, especially when we’re nervous, which people usually are when they’re in a writing class, are not paying attention to extraneous information, such as the name of that guy sitting in the corner. So he might tell you his name is Joseph Conrad, but if you’re like me, it goes right out of your head. What you do not want is a group of people saying, “Yes, I agree with that lady in the blue shirt.” You want people connecting, and so my job is to harangue my students into remembering names (in a polite way). The difficulty is compounded by the fact that I teach in Times Square and my students come from all over the world. I grew up with people named Susan and Robert and very occasionally Priscilla. But in my classes I am presented with a true cornucopia of names, which is fabulous, but hard to get straight. So one of the things I do is write people’s name down using my own phonetic system and then I keep saying those names over and over again. Zagreb, would you hand Sushma a piece of paper? Alice, will you help Rothschild lower the window? And so on.  Sometimes, if even my best efforts don’t work, I do one of my favorite writing exercises, which is to have people write about how they got their name. Everyone has a story about her name. One of my favorites (I won’t use her name), was a woman whose parents had agreed on the name they were going to give her. But when her mother went into labor, her father left the hospital and went to a bar. Where he stayed for 36 hours. The mother was so angry that she decided to name her daughter after a television character in a TV series she knew he didn’t like. So every time that man said his daughter’s name, it was a rebuke. My own name comes as a result of a compromise between my parents. My father was Jewish, born in the Bronx, and my mother was Christian, born in Queens. My father was truly the best-natured person in the world, and he almost never said no to my mother, but when they were talking about baby names for me, my mother said she wanted to name me Christina. My father said, “Absolutely not! No Jew from the Bronx can have a daughter named Christina.” So they settled on Susan, which is an old Hebrew and Biblical name. All of this is a long way of saying that I have been thinking about community a lot, having just returned from my first trip to Bouchercon, which is a huge gathering of mystery writers and readers that takes place once a year, this year in New Orleans. One of the most fun parts was getting to meet people whose names I knew from Facebook or Twitter. In a reverse of the usual situation, I knew the name but not the person. But more about that on my blog tomorrow. How about you? Where does your name come from?    

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What's New in Social Media

One of the perks of being a Random House author is that you get invited to webinars where various publishing folk tell you about things they think you should know. I love going to these webinars. You don’t know who else is sitting in, of course, because you’re just looking at a screen with a picture on it, but I like to imagine Paula Hawkins sitting across from me in the void and thinking, “What if Maggie Dove met The Girl on the Train? Why don’t I call Susan and ask?” Anyway, yesterday the topic was “What’s New in Social Media.” The speaker was a young woman who handles all the social media at Penguin Random House and she had a lot of interesting tidbits. Here are some of them. 1. Share content you enjoy. (Yes, it’s okay to post all those pictures of dogs!) Readers want to know who you are and what your interests are. Social media is about getting across your personality! 2. You don’t need to be on every platform. Pick the one you like. But. If you are only going to pick only one, go with Facebook. That’s the big one, with more than a billion users. She advised authors to set up a fan page because while there are limits to the number of friends you can have, there are no limits to the number of fans you can have.  3. Twitter and Facebook tend to attract older users. The newer platforms, such as Snapchat, tend to draw younger ones. She said young people tend to colonize the new platforms and then the old people move in.   4. Because it’s the internet, there are always going to be some haters. Don’t respond. Don’t get upset. Don’t dwell. (But don’t forget. Never forget! 🙂 )   5. One of the most exciting new platforms is called Litsy. It’s an app for your phone, and it’s all about books. When you go on, it’s a little like instagram, except that there are only pictures of books. You can take pictures of books you’re reading and post them and write blurbs about them. I posted a picture of my fellow Miss Demeanor Cate Holahan’s book, The Widower’s Wife, against a red pillow, since it’s a domestic thriller.  Best of all, it’s a new platform and only has 28,000 or so users so far, so joining Litsky gives you chance to get involved with something on the ground floow. (Imagine if you’d joined twitter when it had only a few thousand users!)If you do decide to join, let me know and I’ll follow you. There’s another platform that’s similar called Reco. I haven’t checked that out yet. Probably her most important advice is to have fun with it. Social media really is about connecting. What about you? Which platforms do you like?  

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Copy Edits

    This is my week for going over the copy-edited version of my new novel, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency (which will be coming out on November 8.)  It’s my last chance to make changes before it goes into publication, which means it’s my last chance to get everything right. On every page of the draft, there are notes from the copy-editor. Sometimes he just wants me to think about a word. Other times it’s more substantive.  Here are some sample questions: 1. Timing is very important in mysteries, as you can imagine. At one point I say that something happened two weeks ago, but actually it happened 20 days ago. Fix that! 2. Early in the novel I refer to a cat as having green eyes, but later on he has yellow eyes. Fix that! 3. I keep misusing “further” and “farther.” 4. Maggie has a conversation with her nemesis, Walter Campbell, and she feels badly for him. But soon thereafter she loses her temper. Take more time, the copy editor cautions. Wait a beat before she yells. 5. I tend to use the word “dumbfounded” a lot. Which I frequently am. But I shouldn’t use it too much. 6. I refer to a book of magic spells. (There are witches in this book!) But I got the title wrong. I fixed it. And so on. None of these things are onerous, but it’s important to get it all right. There’s nothing worse than finding a mistake in a book. Completely damages the author’s credibility. In my first Maggie Dove mystery, the copy-editor found a real doozy. I was referring to a psalm and got the number wrong. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher and that would have been an embarrassing mistake. One of my favorite things about this process is that it does give you a chance to fix mistakes, which is not something you always get in life. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were someone walking alongside you saying, “Just a minute. Are you sure you want to do that?” (Maybe that’s my husband’s job.) Anyway, only 100 more pages to go through and then my new mystery will be as fresh and shiny as I can make it. Then I can get going on a first draft of a new book and make whatever mistakes I want! Have you ever found a mistake in a book? Or have you made one? (In a book, or in life?)    

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Writers' Police Academy

One of the trickiest things about being a mystery writer is getting the police procedural facts right. Given that my protagonist, Maggie Dove, is a 62-year-old Sunday School teacher, I don’t imagine anyone expects her to know how to set up a perimeter. But she does come into contact with people who should know such things, and it’s crucial to get those facts right. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading and watching Criminal Minds, but when I got a notice about the Writers’ Police Academy, I jumped. The Writers’ Police Academy is a four-day workshop, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, designed to teach writers how police work. The conference is run by former detective Lee Lofland and all the instructors have direct experience with law enforcement. In other words, they know what they’re talking about. I spent last weekend at the conference, and my mind is still spinning, but I want to share some of the things I learned. At the beginning of each day, there was a surprise scenario to give us the feeling of what it would be like to be caught in the midst of some disaster. On the first morning we were presented with a gruesome car accident. A drunk driver had plowed head-on into a car, and the body of one of the drivers was flung through the window. (Subsequently the body got up to take selfies.) As we watched, the police interviewed the DWI suspect and arrested her. The EMTs attended to the inured. A helicopter arrived to cart away one of the victims. (Helicopters are much noisier and windier than I realized.) When the scenario was over, all the participants came over to answer our questions about what happened.   The next day we had an even scarier scenario. We were all sitting in a lecture hall, listening to a presentation about the history of terrorism, and all of a sudden we heard shouting from the hallway. A man burst in saying he’d been stabbed. Then, other people in the lecture hall began crying out that they’d been stabbed. Then the police burst in, guns drawn, and shouted at everyone to put our hands over our heads (which turns out to be a hard thing to do for a long period of time.) After all that was over, they explained what they did.    So, as you can see, every day began with my heart pounding. And then there were the classes. Each day you had 20 or classes to choose from. I tried to pick classes that would be useful for Maggie Dove to know. So one of my first classes was on “Mashed Potatoes of Death: Are You Going to Eat That?” The instructor, Dr. Denene Lofland, told us about weapons made from natural sources that could be easily placed in food and drink. Easily! A treasure trove of information for Maggie Dove. The most unnerving class I took was on Death Scene Investigation. There, former police officer John Flannery showed us pictures of actual crime scenes and explained how they were handled. One thing I feel fairly sure of is that Maggie Dove will (probably) not come across dismembered body parts in Darby-on-Hudson. But if she does, I can describe them. One of the most entertaining classes was by David Corbett and titled, “Private Investigation: Or How to be a Dick for Fun and Profit.” Given that Maggie Dove is embarking on a career as a private detective, I was heartened to hear  Corbett say that being a PI is a career designed for women. They tend to be better listeners and people are usually less intimidated by them.  Another great class titled “Why They Were Bad” was taught by forensic psychology professor Katherine Ramsland, who has a new book out about the BTK murderer. She had each of us draw a picture of a person, and then she looked at some of the pictures and it was just amazing what she could deduce from what the person had drawn. (Let’s just say it was a bad sign that I drew a stick figure without hands.) This would be a fascinating exercise to try out with your character. How does your character view the world? On the last night of the workshop, there was a banquet and best-selling author Tami Hoag spoke. She spoke so passionately about character and how it’s impossible to know what a person is really like by just a cursory look at them, though we are all guilty of judging people that way. I was so inspired I bought her new book, The 9th Girl, and read it on the way home, along with fellow Miss Demeanor Cate Holahan’s new book, The Widower’s Wife. So would I go back? Absolutely! But next time I’d like to get in the class where you do high speed chases.   

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