What's on Your Christmas List?

‘ Tis the season for Christmas music, sacred, popular, cloying, and migraine-producing. The selection ranges from Wham!’s “Last Christmas” to “O’ Holy Night” performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with plenty in between. One song, in particular, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” seems to have spawned more spoofs and puns and plays on words than there are Salvation Army kettles at the mall. I recently participated in an Author Takeover to promote the Christmas anthology, The 12 Slays of Christmas. I read a P.D. James short story called, “The 12 Clues of Christmas”. I’ve seen ads on social media (and in my email spam folder) for “The 12 Deals of Christmas” and “The 12 Gifts of Christmas.” All in the same week. Everyone is familiar with the plethora of gifts offered over the twelve days from Christmas Day to Epiphany. And whether you believe the gifts have religious symbolism or the song’s just a festive, musical version of a memory game along the lines of “I’m going on a trip,” you have to admit, a) it’s a pretty hefty haul of loot, b) it’s fun to spoof. We Missdemeanors decided we could come up with better gifts than partridges and colly birds. No one needs that much poultry in their lives. What we have to offer, on the other hand? Well, guess that depends on where you live and who you know. We present, “The 12 Days of Crime-mas”. (Sung to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”)On the first day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, a card to get out of jail free.On the second day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail freeOn the third day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers, and a card to get out of jail freeOn the fourth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers, and a card to get out of jail freeOn the fifth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers, and a card to get out of jail freeOn the sixth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the seventh day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the eighth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, eight pairs of golden handcuffs, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the ninth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, nine con men grifting, eight eight pairs of golden handcuffs, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the tenth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, ten bloodhounds sniffing, nine con men grifting, eight eight pairs of golden handcuffs, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the eleventh day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, eleven victims dying, ten bloodhounds sniffing, nine con men grifting, eight eight pairs of golden handcuffs, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.On the twelfth day of Christmas, my lawyer gave to me, twelve suspects lying, eleven victims dying, ten bloodhounds sniffing, nine con men grifting, eight eight pairs of golden handcuffs, seven shallow graves, six vials of strychnine, five bullet-proof vests, four tips on committing perjury, three jailbroken iPhones, two pearl-handled revolvers and a card to get out of jail free.

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It's What's for Dinner

 I missed putting up a blog post today because the past 48 hours felt more like 400 hours. Food, sleep, and writing took a back seat to the day job, packaging gifts for my church’s angel tree, graduating from Citizens’ Police Academy, packing books to send to contest winners, and schlepping a twenty-two pound box to UPS to return a wrong order to Amazon so I could get a refund. Not to mention the usual stuff: feeding the cat, taking out garbage, checking email and voicemail and text messages to make sure I didn’t miss an appointment or deadline or bill due date, “maintaining my social media presence” (that phrase) to keep Facebook and Twitter from sending me gentle reminders about how followers of my author page/feed want to hear from me—you get the picture. I left the day job, late, today with a to-do list longer than it was when I arrived at the office this morning, which means an early start tomorrow to play catch-up.So what did I do when I finally got home tonight, besides say a prayer of thanks that the cat sitter rescheduled her meet-and-greet with Agatha? I headed for the local pizzeria for some comfort food. Yeah, I know “emotional” eating is bad for you but sometimes I don’t care. A meatball and sausage sandwich and a bowl of minestrone soup (loaded with vegetables, by the way) went a long way toward making up for a missed lunch and freezing temps. Food plays a big role in much crime fiction. From the culinary cozy subgenre’s recipes to Nero Wolfe’s epicurean meals to Agatha Christie’s frequent choice of a murder weapon, food appears in mysteries again and again. In her November 2016 article in The Guardian, “Dining With Death: Crime Fiction’s Long Affair With Food,” crime writer Miranda Carter lists several detectives known as much for what they eat as for the crimes they solve: the aforementioned, Nero Wolfe, Inspector Montalbano, Yashim, Pepe Carvalho, Inspector Maigret. Food puts in a more-than-passing appearance in Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade stories. While Agatha Christie’s poison-laced morsels hardly qualify as comfort food, in many of the other crime stories meals form the center piece of pleasant rituals that provide the detective—and the reader—with temporary respite from the horrors and stress of their work. Like my meatballs, sausage, and minestrone. While my life is far from horrible, it is stressful. Some days I feel as if dozens of things are happening at once and I’m running from crisis to crisis until I reach a point where I can’t even remember what day it is. (On Tuesday, I felt as if, surely, it must be Friday.) I drag myself home, exhausted and cranky. But, with a good meal and an hour or so, I feel ready to take on the world again. What’s your favorite comfort food? How do you unwind after a stressful day?

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Warm Winter Wishes

You may have guessed from my previous posts this week that I have winter issues. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays (Easter being the other) but I’d like it just fine if Christmas came in October. During the dark, cold stretch from late November to early March, I’d just as soon take a vacation from the world, crawl into a cave, and hibernate. But, since I am not a bear, I have to bundle up, go outside, and deal with it. Mysteries help me deal with winter. Solving puzzles (or following along with a brilliant detective and wondering how I missed that oh-so-obvious clue) keeps my brain from going as numb as my fingers. Singing Christmas songs off-key at the top of my lungs along with the all-Christmas music station as I drive back and forth to work also helps but I don’t like to admit that. Drinks that give me the warm fuzzies help, too. Let’s call them comfort drinks. I’m writing this post in the Hearth Room of the Deerpath Inn, one of my favorite places on the planet. I braved the cold tonight because I wanted an Adult Red Velvet Hot Chocolate—a cinnamon and candy cane concoction I saw posted to the Deerpath’s Instagram feed. However, by the time I got to the bar (Called “The Bar”. Really.) it was standing room only. On a Tuesday. With below-freezing temperatures. Everybody in town counts the Deerpath Inn among their favorite places. So, I headed upstairs to my happy place, the Hearth Room. The Hearth Room is exactly as you imagine it—British club room with a ginormous fireplace (complete with blazing fire, of course). Paintings of dogs and bucolic landscapes adorn the walls. Furniture of leather and dark wood. You expect Holmes and Watson to arrive any minute. The place begs to be the setting for a traditional mystery. It’s the perfect place to be on a chilly night. However, I couldn’t get my Red Velvet Hot Chocolate up here. No worries, though. The Deerpath Inn is the sort of place loathe to disappoint. I “settled” for plain hot chocolate with Koval bourbon and whipped cream. Who needs candy canes? A few sips of the chocolate-with-a-peppery-afterburn libation and I felt quite cozy. If I didn’t have to go work in the morning, I’d probably rent a room at the Inn then head upstairs to curl into a tight ball underneath a down comforter in one of their cozy, cozy beds. Since I do have to work tomorrow, I’ll finish my drink and my dinner then bundle up and make my way home (on foot. Don’t drink and drive.) Maybe I’ll read some Agatha Christie or P.D. James before snuggling into my own, somewhat less plush, bed to dream sweet dreams of temperate climes. (Actually, my dreams are bizarre. But never dull.) How do you deal with dark, cold days? Or do you love them? What are your favorite winter-themed mysteries? 

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We Wish You an Eerie Christmas

 I attended a candlelit Advent service at church last night. The Women’s Spirituality Group led a beautiful, peaceful service that celebrated women’s voices. We listened to readings that honored the contributions of women to church life, sang hymns of preparation for Christ’s birth, and prayed for peace in a nave bathed in the soft glow of candles. In the midst of fellowship and music and candle glow, my thoughts turned to murder. The stillness and darkness of the scene made me think it would be a perfect place to set a murder mystery. Advent and Christmas are popularly associated with merriment and cheer. Holly and bells and reindeer and elves bring joy. But Christmastime has a darker side. Christmas Day is only four days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter is long and cold and dark and dangerous. Poem and songs memorialize the bleakness of the solstice day, also known as Midwinter. Ancient Romans celebrated solstice at the Feast of Saturnalia characterized, according to one source, by “debauchery” in addition to feasting and gift-giving. The classic Christmas story, “A Christmas Carol,” is a ghost story whose plot hinges on terrifying specters putting a man in fear of his life. Even seemingly benign figures like Santa Claus and the Elf on the Shelf take on a more ominous hue when you take a closer look. An immortal home invader who appears in the night once a year to break into homes while its residents sleep and a tiny man with an unblinking stare who lurks from place to place in your house watching your every move and reporting back to the immortal home invader. Many mystery authors have taken advantage of Yuletide’s dark undertones and set their crimes at Christmas. Mysterynet.com lists more than a dozen, including stories by classic authors such as O. Henry, Damon Runyan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, and, of course, Agatha Christie. I just finished The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories by P.D. James. The holidays weren’t very merry for James’s characters.Have you ever peeked beneath Christmastide’s glittery skin to examine its darkness? Do you have any favorite Christmas-themed mysteries? Any Chanukah-, Kwanzaa-, or other winter holiday-themed mysteries?

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Starting your story. Is it magic?

TRACEE: As writers we have stories floating around in our heads all the time. Sometimes I feel like everything I see during the day spurs a little “and then what if?” moment where I spin the action, dialogue, character into something darker. I’m sure that some of those thoughts do make it into a story as an expression, or phrase or setting. Perhaps even as the seed for a character. However, it is a far cry from fleeting interest to formation of a plot that will become a project that occupies my mind for at least a year.  Those of us who write a series are looking for plot – we know the broader sense of our story (continuing characters, setting and some on-going themes). If you aren’t writing a series – or if you are, and think to break away – then all ideas are on the table. Action, mystery, romance, historical, literary, comic books. You name it, and it is possible.  How do you know that ‘this is it!’ This is the storyline that you will commit to. SUSAN: There are few better feelings than that shiver of excitement you feel when you know you’ve hit on something good. (Then I ask Paula and she tells me if I’m right.) A lot of times it just comes down to knowing I have enough to say about the plot to spin it out. If it’s interesting, but I don’t have that much to say, then I write it as a story. I wish it was scientific, but it’s more like falling in love. PAULA: When I know who the characters are–and what challenges they face. When I can “see” them in action in my mind…then I have the beginnings of a plot. CATE: I think my stories choose me like the wands in Harry Potter. An idea just takes hold and magic happens…;-) ROBIN: Ideas are constantly percolating. When characters becomes as real to me as my friends and family, or situations start to seem less like a “what if” and more like a memory, that’s when I know I’ll give the ideas life. I mean, heck, at that point, they’re writing themselves. All I have to do is pick up a pen or fire up my laptop. Like Cate said, it’s like magic. TRACEE: So… to the ‘magic happens’ among you. Is there still room to start an idea and then say, no, it didn’t work out? Or once you have it in mind, it’s a “GO!”??  I have several (but not tons) of ideas that became starts but then I decided no or the fates tempted me away. ROBIN: I leave room for experiments and surprises. Ideas that started life in one way have evolved into something else, like a subplot. If it’s not working, I don’t force it, though. Sometimes when I make cuts, whether they be characters or scenes, I save them in a separate “cuts” file. Only the characters/scenes that haunted me to begin with. The cuts that are pure crap get left behind as unallocated space on my hard drive, ready to be overwritten. In other words, deleted. 🙂 MICHELE: I know it when my fingers hit the keyboard and seem to have a life of their own. It’s like the story is in me and has to be told. The characters just won’t shut up until I’m done.  ALEXIA: Ooh, good question. I start with a subject that fascinates me, something I want to learn more about in real life, a something I’d be “into” even if I wasn’t writing a novel. Then I try to combine my characters and a murder (or three) with my chosen topic. If I can figure out how to combine, for instance, rose gardens and growing roses (hint, hint) with Gethsemane and the gang and a credible crime, that’s my story. Sometimes I’ll find a topic that grabs me but I can’t figure out how to work a dead body into it so it goes into the “maybe someday” pile. TRACEE: Now I’m going to be hesitant to follow Alexia into her rose garden or any flower garden for that matter. ALLISON: For me, I need something concrete intersecting with something theoretical. With this first book, I became obsessed with an enormous house that had been empty for years because of the housing bubble in Utah. The house plays almost no role in the story now, but it was the jumping off point for thinking about greed, secrets, and people who do very wrong things for what they believe are very right reasons. Like Alexia, I enjoy research. I’m an eternal student and love reading primary source material. My Mormon history is a great place to find strange and disconcerting ideas for murders.   I have started projects that seem to peter out around 20,000 words. Those are stories where I have the physical component–people and places–but haven’t found the right theme. I keep them; believing one morning I’ll wake up with just the right reason for murder.   TRACEE: Thanks everyone! I’ve decided that if I turn burglar or hacker I’d want to peek inside the dark reaches of computers and read the lost idea and chapters waiting patiently to be reinvigorated. Bet there’s some good stuff among the detritus! Wonder how other writers decide the time is right to start the story? 

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National Novel Writing Month

  NaNoWriMo is a big deal. If you are a writer you’ve heard of it and likely participated – or at least swore that you would this year. Essentially NaNoWriMo is one great big on-line writing prompt. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and 11:59 pm on November 30. According to the organizers: “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” Taken at face value this is a great thing! Daily emails and an online forum to keep the writer motivated. Published authors use it to kick start their next project, dreamers use the schedule to dive in. The sheer speed of the daily word count makes you forget to worry and just get words on the page. (For anyone who is writing their first novel the blank page is not your friend. Every word past the first one gets easier. Finally you are lost in the story and the end is near.) Take the concept a step further and the value to elevating discourse about creativity is immeasurable. NaNoWriMo is much more than one month a year. The Young Writers Program takes the notion of creativity into K-12 classrooms around the world. Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing retreat for fiction and non-fiction alike. The Come Write In program is a free resource to libraries and others who are promoting reading and writing in their communities. Writing leads to reading and vice versa. And both writing and reading lead to greater success in all aspects of life – listening and speaking skills improve, analytical skills strengthen, focus and concentration increase, and stress is reduced as the mind focuses. So whether you are a writer or a reader or both let’s give a shout out to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo this year!  For more on NaNoWriMo visit their website at NaNoWriMo.org and get ready for 2018.  

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Reflections on holidays past

 My favorite Christmas memories are about being with my family. My parents always created a magical time of year, complete with sparkly tree, days of cooking favorite sweet and spicy treats, and, of course, gifts on Christmas Day. There was usually some project that took more time than anticipated and probably drove my mother crazy as we commandeered space she needed to do the real preparations for guests. Two projects that I remember in particular were making pine cone wreaths – incredibly messy – and creating all sorts of gingerbread projects, including the one pictured here.    When I was a child, my mother’s cousins hosted a party on Christmas eve that to my young eyes was the height of sophistication. Technically I viewed the main event from the children’s party in their ‘rec room’. I have such clear memories that there must have been a lot of peeking and dashes into the main party to ask my parents a question of great importance. Looking back, I think that this was a heroic feat on their part the night before Christmas day – when they also served an amazing dinner for many guests! I lived in a small town and have fond memories of the Christmas parade (as a high school student in band I also remember it being very cold some years) and of special church services and caroling. My husband grew up in Europe and his memories have a greater sense of ‘the town’. Christmas markets filed the streets of Vienna, Austria and Lausanne, Gruyere, and Fribourg in Switzerland, the places where he spent most of his youth. Handcrafted ornaments and other decorations were displayed in abundance alongside mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.  In Fribourg, the festival of Saint Nicolas was – and still is – a huge event. Held the first weekend in December, Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of the town, is mounted on a donkey and leads a cortege through the streets to the gallery of the cathedral. From his position high above the crowd he then makes his remarks. Thousands of people gather for the event, a true community celebration for all ages. To this day my husband’s friends who still live in Fribourg reunite for a fondue after the parade, and when we are there it is a true highlight of the season. I should confess that as I write this I am thinking…. hmmm maybe there is a short story in this.: Death at Saint Nicolas. The mere idea may get me banned from the festival…. What are your fondest holiday traditions? Any story ideas in them? 

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Oh Christmas Tree?

 A photo of FLOTUS’s White House Christmas decorations—a phalanx of up-lit, bare-branched white trees lining a black-tiled corridor illuminated only by a few pendant lamps and the lights on an equally dark Christmas tree at the corridor’s far end—generated lots of reaction on social media. Responses pretty much evenly split between “love it” and “hate it” (although I know of one person who said, “at least it’s different”). Many assumed that politics informed the reactions because, hey, everything is about politics these days. Right? Wrong, in my case. I voted “hate it” not because of political affiliation but because of—scary trees. I don’t think hip or trendy when I look at the photo of stark branches emitting an icy vibe. I think, “When are the flying monkeys going to attack?” “Where’s the Snow Queen hiding?” Jack Frost? The Abominable Snowman? Snow White’s wicked stepmother? The cast of an M. Night Shyamalan movie? Notice a theme? Forests, the woods, places filled with scary trees are places where evil lurks and bad things happen. They are not locations of holiday merriment. “Little Red Riding Hood”. The Princess Bride. “Hansel and Gretel”. The Blair Witch Project. The Cabin in the Woods. Deliverance. Do any of those stories stir the holiday spirit? Every time I pass a woods, I think of the news reports and true crime shows and episodes of “Law and Order” where a body was found in the woods by a hiker, hunter, dog walker, or Boy Scout. Don’t go in the woods. Add chilling darkness to the scary trees—as in the White House photo—and I cringe. When people talk about winter wonderlands I think “wonder” in the sense of “I wonder what I’m doing out here and I wonder where the nearest fireplace is”. I don’t do cold and dark. I can handle them each individually—cold or dark. Combined? No thanks. I moved from Alaska clear down to Texas to get away from a cold darkness that seemed to last forever. The dark is the worst. When it’s just cold, I can bundle up in stylish sweaters and fashionable coats, throw on a rakish scarf for some flair, and head outside to enjoy the bright winter sun. I’m a creature of light. I keep a light on the porch and a sting of fairy lights in my bedroom illuminated all night, to heck with the electric bill.  I’d make the world’s worst vampire. While some people bemoan it as a sign of light pollution, I think the sight of cities lit up as you fly over them on the red-eye is beautiful. Neon signs flashing over city streets are magnificent. I never fail to stop and marvel. My town illuminated all of its (not scary) trees around the train station and Market Square with thousands of miniature lights for the holidays. I love it. A forest of light is a forest where nothing lurks. I’m sure a folklorist or psychologist would explain how the forest represents our primal fear of the unknown and the danger that awaits those who dare venture away from the safety and security of the tribe/family/familiar. I’m not going to tell you any of that. I’m going to say there’s a reason, a reason that has nothing to do with holiday cheer, so many authors and filmmakers set their horror stories and cautionary tales in the woods—the colder and darker, the better. What’s the scariest place you can think of to set a story? What do you think of when you see woods in the winter?

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What's her name today?

 Every writer, and many readers, have heard stories about character names. One famous example is how Scarlett O’Hara was Pansy before the final printing. I’m not saying Gone With the Wind wouldn’t have survived this, but Scarlett certainly set the tone for the character in a way Pansy wouldn’t have.  I’ve working on names for book three of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries and I’ve already had a few naming issues. Since this is a continuing series the main characters are established. The Vallotton family plays a prominent role in each of the first two books and will in the third. So why did I think Veillon was a good last name for an important character in book three? To me, Vallotton and Veillon are two distinct names. To my Beta readers, evidently not. (To make matters worse, I hastily changed Veillon to Langren before sending to my writers’ group…. except I didn’t really. I substituted a misspelling. This meant that when I tried a auto substitution to the final name (Rochebin) I only had one instance to change. For a moment I thought: how is it possible I used the name of one of the most important characters one time in the entire manuscript.) For me, names carry connotation. My books are set in Switzerland which means the name can have a regional association. Do I want to emphasize their linguistic affiliation? Or the fact that they are a foreigner? (Smythe, for example.) Beyond a sense of historical place or ethnicity, names carry connotations that are personal or cultural. Trendy names, classic names. What does a nickname say about a person?  Any favorite or least favorite fictional names?   

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End of the year. Time for on-line presence and social media audit?

Soon people will start talking about New Year’s resolutions (which I don’t do). However I am a fall and spring clean out person. Closets, attic, you name it. Time to weed out things I don’t love. This seems like a bad segue into all things internet and social media – I don’t want to give the impression that I want it to all go away! However, I’ve recently realized that I’ve updated some profiles, but not others (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook…. my personal website…. where does it stop!) So…. I’m about to undertake an audit of my online presence prompted by the release of my newest book in early February.  Technically the prompt was the marketing department at my publisher….. a very nice email with links to every place in the universe where my books can be purchased. Wish I could just say Google my name and your favorite book seller, or visit the store, and order one! Apparently that’s not enough.  Anyway, prompted to update these links I am now working my way through with a checklist, making sure everything aligns and is current. Photo, current books with links to sellers, contact information, directions to other pages, links to…. you get the picture. I’m afraid that I run the risk of going down the dark hole of the internet and investing too much time. But I think that a thorough (clean out the attic but don’t repaint it) look is needed. Anyone else out there thinking about an annual audit?     

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