Author: Susan Breen

Author of the Maggie Dove mystery series.

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

 
Happy almost-new year. 2018 comes to an end in less than 24 hours. Are you ready for 2019? Are you taking this time to reflect on the year that was? Or plan for the year ahead? Will you attend a fabulous party with music and sparkle and maybe a kiss for good luck? Or spend a cozy evening at home with family, human or otherwise? Maybe you’ll spend a contented evening alone with your favorite beverage and a good book. Or maybe you’re working in a hospital or police station or air traffic control tower or airport security line or military base, or for a taxi company or rideshare service, to keep the rest of us safe as we begin 2019. (Thank you.) Or maybe 2018 left you so run down you’re going to turn in early and wake up on January 1 full of hope that the new year will bring peace and joy. Whatever you’re doing and wherever you’re doing it, I send you best wishes for a happy, healthy, successful new year. 

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Writing Promptly

 NaNoWriMo starts November 1. To encourage writers to start thinking about their upcoming writing odyssey they ran a month-long Instagram challenge featuring daily prompts. Writers were encouraged to post ideas for cover art, describe what their main character had in their pockets, and choose their main character’s theme song, among other ideas. The Career Authors blog posts a writing prompt every Sunday. Last week’s was about replacing unnecessary dialogue with a gesture or action that conveyed the same message.
I don’t use writing prompts to help me with my work in progress. But sometimes I’ll use a random writing prompt as a creative warmup, a way to get the ideas, and the words, flowing if I’m in a dry spell. Sometimes, like with the NaNoWriMo Instachallenge, I’ll join in for fun. I asked my fellow Missdemeanors their opinions about writing prompts.

Susan
I use a lot of writing exercises in my teaching. So often when my students are working on them, I work on them, and it’s very helpful. But mainly I love filling out character dossiers. I love those little details that crop up about characters and find I have to go hunting for them and the dossiers really help. The other day I was filling out one and remembered how my aunt could only sleep on white sheets. Colorful or, God forbid patterned, sheets made her nervous. It’s a small and insane detail, but I used it for a character and I really liked it.

Robin
I learned the value of writing prompts in high school and was reminded of them during the first Algonkian craft workshop I took a few years ago. These days, I don’t sit down and go through exercises unrelated to my WIPs but I do think about them when I see them, like the prompts on Career Authors. It flexes the writer part of my brain the same way lifting weights flexes muscles. In early drafts I give myself prompts to add depth and texture to setting, or address the “why” of a character. What time of year is it – describe it without using the words “spring,” “summer,” “fall, or “winter.” What does my protagonist hear when they walk out their front door? What did my MC want to be when they grew up and what derailed them? Who

Cate
I don’t use writing prompts. Stories tend to come to me more fully formed from some conversation between my subconscious and conscious mind. Right now, I feel like the news is a giant writing trigger.

Alison
Amen to that, Cate. I’m quite certain my first, second, and third books are informed by the political Zeitgeist (not a word that often seems appropriate, but it does now). When I struggle, I pick up a thread that works and keep going. Almost always, something points me in the right direction. That “ah ha” usually comes during dialogue when I let my characters just talk. They usually tell me something I was missing.
Having said, I’m currently working on a New York story, and I find myself having to trust the process of letting my characters guide me…and, I admit, it’s not easy for me. With the Abish Taylor mysteries, I have an overarching theme that guides each book. Here, I know the beginning and the end, but the theme isn’t so clear to me yet.

Tracee
When I hear “writing prompt” I used to think it’s time to sit down and write based on this lesson. Maybe that’s old school! When I’m in a project, my new way of thinking of a writing prompt helps me over difficult humps. If I can’t get the scene right and am spinning wheels, then perhaps it’s time to Stop. But not stop working. Instead, I can pick an angle (aka choosing one of the writing prompts) and do it that way. Change the location, or the POV, or perhaps start at a different moment. This is a writing prompt to solve a very specific problem. Sometimes I then see both the good and bad in the original.
That said, I’m still not one to use a writing prompt out of the blue. I’m always working toward a larger goal (even if the goal is a “short” story). I may see a writing prompt and think great idea…. and then use it when I’m at a specific stumbling block. A writing prompt is also a writing tip. Or maybe I should say lesson. 

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Oh, to be a Unicorn

 I’m sharing  Kellye Garrett’s Facebook post as my guest post today. Hop over to her Facebook page (or  Missdemeanors’ Facebook page) to join the discussion. Graphic design by Leslie Lipps. She’s awesome. “Alexia had this made. My original plan was to post it with one of my trademark smart aleck comments like “my crew is more talented than yours.” But then I took another look at this ad and realized what it represents:

Seven extremely talented black women who love mystery novels enough to say “I’m going to write one and do everything I can to get it published in an industry that often refuses to acknowledge my existence besides being a victim or a sassy best friend.”

And somehow, some way, there is a little black girl out there right now who is going to see this and it’s going to make her write a book.

#blackgirlmagic for real.

I love my fellow unicorns.

P.S. My crew is more talented than yours.”   https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10156064468627945&id=546517944 

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Ready to read… any suggestions?

TRACEE: I know, I know. Everyone’s TBR pile is a mile high – as is mine. Sometimes I need a nudge toward ‘clearing’ it. And…. I’m not adverse to reading something straight from the store before it hits the pile.  I’m packing for an Ocean voyage to be followed by a few months in Europe. This means I need to decide what to take to read (while I read in other languages, it’s not the same, so the main reading plan will involve English language books).   There are a few books that I haven’t read for one reason or another, including The Nightingale, although I’ve had a dozen people tell me it have to! While traveling I like to revisit old favorites – particularly handy in a travel emergency where you aren’t sure if you are going or staying and can’t quite concentrate. For this I may take Shogun. But it’s a toss up with Lonesome Dove.  If anyone wants to point me in the right direction this is the moment. Send me your reading favorites! SUSAN: Safe travels, Tracee! Seeing Lonesome Dove and Shogun makes me think of James Michener, and I wonder how he holds up. Also The Thorn Birds. I loved The Nightingale. I read it on a trip to England and I picked it up when we took off and was still reading it when we landed. Just an incredible book. I also like to read books about the country that I’m visiting, so when I went to India I read Vikram Seth’s book, Two Lives, which is a memoir that brings together an Indian love story and the Holocaust. I also find anything by Karin Slaughter grabs my attention. PAULA:When I travel, I like to take nonfiction and fiction. The nonfiction tends to be about writing or yoga or poetry, or, as in the case of te book I took along on my last trip, all three: The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life, by Natalie Goldberg. If you haven’t read Goldberg, start with Writing Down the Bones. It’s a classic.As for fiction: I have a lot of ebooks loaded on my iPad. If I’ll be on the road awhile, I start a new series and read them in order. I read Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels this way. They’re fabulous. I also take a Jack Reacher paperback with me. I’ve read all of Lee Childs’ Reacher novels, and collect them in most all formats: ebooks, paperback, and hardcover. I like to reread them for character and action–and because they are guaranteed to distract me from the annoyances and anxieties of travel. TRACEE: I can’t agree more about the Reacher novels. There’s something about them while traveling! ALEXIA: I bring paperback books (1 or 2) that I won’t mind leaving behind when I’m done with them. I think of it as gifting it to the next traveler. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout are travel favorites. I just read my first Brother Cadfael, and loved it, so he goes on the list. After that I choose something from my TBR pile that’s small enough to slip into a large purse/tote bag. Sometimes I leave my reading choice to fate–and Hudson Booksellers–and choose something from the airport. I actually found one of my all-time favorite books that way–Han Solo at Stars End.P.S. Don’t the Cunard ships have libraries?  ROBIN: I’m like Alexia, if I travel with physical books, I leave them behind in hotel rooms when I finish them. That’s where I tuck tips for hotel maids. The number of physical books I bring depends on where I’m going and why. If it’s business or city travel and the hotel room has a safe, I’ll bring my Kindle, too. If I’m going somewhere with a beach or pool, I leave the Kindle at home and bring only physical books. The number of books depends on the duration of the trip. I’m also a sucker for Hudson Booksellers so I leave room in carry-on luggage for last minute impulse purchases. Funny that Susan brought up Michener – I read Hawaiithe first time I went to Kauai. It didn’t occur to me until just now that I do that sometimes, read fiction relevant to where I’m going. I discovered Cara Black before one of my trips to Paris. I read Joe Finder’s The Fixer on a trip to Boston and then read Paranoia on my way home. Living near San Francisco, I read a bunch of local contemporary authors and several classics like Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac, and John Steinbeck. Tracee, my parents used to love cruise ships. They would pack one suitcase dedicated to carrying their books. Usually Cold War spy novels and history for my dad, biographies and rom-com’s for my mom. Have a great trip! MICHELE: One of my favorite things about traveling is deciding which books to pack. Honestly, forget clothes and cosmetics. It’s all about what I will read, how I will write. Books, notebooks, pens, post-its, and highlighters go in the bag first. But which books to bring depends on where I am going and for how long. When I go to St. John or Mexico in the winter, I’ll pack hardcovers, paperbacks, and my Kindle Paperwhite. Titles depend. I save books for occasions like trips. I will read the latest Elizabeth George when I’m on a longer trip because her books are quite lengthy. I started Donna Tart’s The Secret History after loving The Goldfinch, but quickly realized it was too intense to read in little gulps. Sometimes I pack something light and delicious for the plane/beach.  I have a quick trip to St. John coming up. I’ll be taking Paula’s A Borrowing of Bonesand Alison’s Blessed Be the Wickedwith me. When I return, I have to dig into The Dublinersfor a course I signed up for. Happy trails, Tracee. I envy your trip and all those books you’ll get to read. TRACEE: Love all of your suggestions. I should have mentioned the 8,000 volume library shipboard which will provide over two weeks of reading material. I won’t see a single airport, which means I won’t have the joy of the airport bookstore. Although that means I could lug around heavy suitcases for months without worrying about weight allowances, I have decided I’ll use my e-reader. That way I can have a huge assortment of old favorites and new selections available at all times!  ALISON: I love the idea of browsing a library while crossing the Atlantic by ship (Tracee, please send pictures!) and packing books for winter in St. John or Mexico (Michele, what a life!). Back in the pre-Kindle/pre-smart phone days, I always packed Austen and/or Bronte when I travelled because I just love the stories. The writing is beautiful, the characters delicious, and I could rely on relatively happy endings. Now that I can bring an almost infinite number of books with me on my Kindle app, I try to make sure I have a balance of a few books in the mystery/suspense genre (Robert Galbraith springs to mind, Elizabeth George always, Linda Castillo), fiction outside my comfort zone recommended by friends , and then some non-fiction simply because it interests me. Right now, I find my knowledge of Chinese history appallingly thin, so I’m going to find a good primer for my trip to Nashville next week. Happy reading, everyone! TRACEE: Thanks everyone! I’ve been taking notes and my final reading list is coming together! Now I need to remember to pack clothes.

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The Best Birthday Present

Being born the day after Christmas is like arriving to a party as the guests are drying the dishes. People are done celebrating. They’re stuffed and sleepy. They’d like to go to bed. But here you are, compelling some exhausted loved one to get out a dessert plate. I sympathize with the exhausted revelers. On December 26, my birthday, all I want to do is sleep off the food coma and not make breakfast after cooking for days to host family.  Right now, my in laws are giving me the best birthday present, playing with my kids while I camp out in my bedroom, write this blog post, and spend a couple of hours lost in my own thoughts, which is really a wonderful gift for a writer. We need time to just think about feelings and descriptions, to sort the random images that come into our heads. To take note. What is the best birthday present that you have received?   

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Every Christmas, after the presents are unwrapped, the dishes are cleared, and the kids tucked into bed, I reward myself with some time by the fire, Christmas music, and a good book. It’s my gift to myself.  Often the holidays can seem more like an endless chore than a time for celebration. The house must be prepared to host friends and relatives (or you have to pack to travel) and a ton of food has to be prepared. There’s shopping for everyone to make sure that loved ones feel appreciated. In my house, there’s getting squirmy kids ready for church and trying to get them to pay attention to readings that go over their heads. After all the celebrating is over, there is the cleanup of wrapping paper, putting away leftovers, and hand washing wine glasses. It’s a blessing to be able to entertain dear friends and family members. I love celebrating with family, and I love seeing my kids faces light up when grandparents and cousins arrive, and their excitement when they share gifts (some of which they’ve made themselves… with a little help from mom). I appreciate this time. But after it’s all done, I also really appreciate my ending tradition. What holiday tradition do you have?  

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Downtown

 I’ve been thinking, since my Bouchercon panel, “North vs South,” about the differences between small towns and big cities. In this day of easy travel and impermanent jobs, those differences seem more pronounced than differences based on the Mason-Dixon Line or Mississippi River. In the past 7 days, I’ve flown from my adopted small town in Illinois to a big city in Ontario, Canada to a big city in Washington. The big cities, despite being located in different countries as well as on opposite coasts, feel a lot alike. The weather contributes to this feeling–gray and rainy with occasional bursts of sun in both locales–but the similarity runs deeper than barometric pressure. High-rise, glass and steel luxury condos overlook still-gritty waterfronts. Homeless people, too–what? Tired? Desolate? Hopeless?–to ask for your spare change dot the streets. A vibe buzzes through the air, difficult to describe but as different from my small town as a raven is from a writing desk. A vibe that manifests in ways that seem inconsequential. But are they? Halloween decorations, for instance. My small town goes all out with the decor. Driveways and doorways and fence posts festooned with pumpkins, mums, skeletons, and cobwebs. The degree of Halloween-specific vs Autumn-in-general varies from house to house and storefront to storefront but, no mistake, people celebrate the season. Not so much in these big cities. Almost nothing outwardly marks the season. “Business as usual,” they scream. Trivial, right? A few gourds doomed to be tossed to rotate in favor of poinsettias and some plastic skeletons destined for a dusty basement corner. But does the lack of such symbols in big cities signify the insignificance of the seasons’ shift? Because a change of seasons changes nothing? Life in shiny, imposing, climate-controlled towers goes on pretty much the same, regardless of the calendar? I’m not knocking big cities. I love them. A city full of people is, paradoxically, an introvert’s dream. Think of the things on offer–art galleries, museum exhibits, window shopping–that don’t require social interaction. You can be alone without feeling alone. But I do wonder if someone living in Dallas, TX would react to a situation more like someone from Marfa, TX or like someone in New York City? What do you think?

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The Power of Positive Flying

 A day after returning from Bouchercon, I sit shoehorned into an economy seat for a four-and-a-half hour flight to the West Coast to make a site visit to one of our stations. I had fifteen hours to unpack, try to salvage waterlogged books and journals from the aftermath of the apparent flood that invaded my basement while I enjoyed Toronto, repack, eat (miniature Swiss chocolate bars, a Naked protein shake, and a Starbucks latte), catch up on some blogs (a Femmes Fatales post and two posts for my Lone Star Lit blog tour), nap, shower, dress, and catch a taxi back to the airport I’d just left. The shrieking (full-on, Banshee-worthy wails punctuated by sobs akin to chainsaws. Think of the fits thrown by Mary in the Secret Garden. Think of someone being tortured by Klingons.) temper tantrums of two of my coach-mates have turned the possibility of sleep on the plane into a hope as forlorn as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. So what to do in the face of hours of cramped elbows, sore knees, a weird numbness in my pinky, and an onslaught of relentless screaming?
Focus on the positive. I picked up a magazine called “Live Happy” (seriously, that’s the name) in the airport lounge. It’s filled with tips for better living through positive thinking. So, I’ll try it. I’ll think of the nice things about this flight. The flight attendant gave me two creamers and two sugars for my coffee without my having to ask. The young woman in the middle seat next to me moved to an empty row so now I have more room. The vapor trails of the jet that passed disturbingly close beneath us were beautiful. The woman in the aisle seat is not chatty; she’s absorbed in her book. And I ended up with enough material for a blog post. 

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Bite-sized Bouchercon

 I started this post a few days ago. Now I’m sitting in Toronto Pearson International Airport waiting to board my flight back to the U.S. I’m manning the International Thriller Writers’ table at my first Bouchercon, feeling…overwhelmed. This conference is huge. I ran into Hank Phillipi Ryan in the elevator and joked there were more people in the hotel than there were on the streets. 1700 registrants. Wow. 1700 authors, editors, agents, bloggers, reviewers, readers, all gathered to celebrate mystery. Double wow. No danger of not finding enough to do. The opposite. Activities run non-stop from 7:30 am until 11 pm, or later. Hard decisions must be made to choose what to do without overdoing it and making yourself crazy. Try to do everything and, in addition to discovering you’d need to clone yourself to be in multiple places at the same time, you’ll collapse from exhaustion. Here are a few suggestions, based on what worked for me. If you’re on a panel, it’s easy. Start with that. Block out your time slot so you don’t inadvertently schedule yourself to be someplace else while you’re supposed to be on the dias. Dont forget, a 30 minute booksigning follows your panel. Next, find your friends’ (and agent’s and editors) panels and mark those. We members of the mystery community are friends with each other. The only throats we cut are on the page. We support each other. But at Bouchercon, support has to be rationed. At least two of your friends will be on concurrent panels. Attend one friend’s panel and buy the other a drink later to make up for it. You could spend the entire conference going from panel to panel to panel but I advise you not to. Panel fatigue will set in quickly. Break up the routine by volunteering for a shift at a table promoting one of the many writers’ organizations and fan societies represented at Bouchercon: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and several others. Or volunteer to help Bouchercon itself. The volunteer table lists opportunities to serve. Plus, depending on what you sign up to do, you get to sit for a while and let people come to you. Finally, leave some time for fun. Cocktail and dinner parties abound. Or get away from the conference completely and be a tourist. Experience what your host city has on offer. Fellow Missdemeanor, Susan Breen, and I went on a ghost walk (led by Ryan of The Haunted Walk Toronto) through the Distillery District. We learned a bit of Toronto’s distillery past, discovered that Canadian ghosts are more polite than their American counterparts, and had a free sample of beer at Mill Street Brewery. I became a Fluevog shoe convert and celebrated my shoe-shopping victory with a tasting at Spirit of York distillery (sadly, not available in the US. Yet.) and at Soma chocolate. I also squeezed in a visit to the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, At Home with Monsters, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I marveled at pieces from his apparently endless collection of books, movie memorabilia, paintings, photographs, and sculptures, all related to the people” places, and things that inspired him and accented by his quotations on creativity and belonging (or not). So, those were my tips for navigating Bouchercon. Pick and choose and break it into smaller pieces so it’s easier to wrap your hands, and your brain, around.

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