Where do characters come from?

 Since I’m writing fiction, they are invented. Let’s make that clear. On the other hand: what does invented mean? I was trying to explain this to friends over the weekend and they had the inevitable questions about names and physical descriptions and other particulars that define a character. The easy answer is that my characters are amalgamations of people I’ve known. Someone’s eyes are mixed with another mouth and yet a third’s hair color. Voila, a fictional character. After all, I need my characters to do what I need them to do. We can skip the whole ‘my characters led me….’ discussion here. Yes, characters develop their ‘own’ personality and there are moments when you realize that what you’ve written doesn’t sound like them. But, trust me, I’m ultimately in control. They do not seize the keyboard (although if they would, that would be lovely. Ah to wake up and find that next scene written!). Back to the point… and the question posed over the weekend. A friend suggested I include one of our mutual friends in my next book. It was meant as a nod to someone we both admire, something he would think was fun and flattering. But wait. Does that mean I use his name and he’s a one-line character, a waiter in a passing scene, for example. My friend is most definitely not a waiter so it would be a fictional part, but he would read the name and know that I’d included him. Later, I jokingly asked if he would want to be the killer or the victim. He picked victim, specifically requesting a glamorous demise to start the book off in style. Now I have to draw the line. You see, I might not be able to separate the character from the person. I would want the real person to identify with ‘their’ character and, guess what, that would mean I’m no longer in control. I could drop the name of a contest winner in with no problem. I create the character and then assign the name. Both are ‘fictional’ to me. But to blend the fiction with the reality could be tricky. Anyone ever named their victim after a good friend? How’d that turn out?  

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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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Bouchercon Goals

Bouchercon, the largest gathering of mystery and thriller writers in the United States, can be an overwhelming experience. Every hour, there are panels filled with successful, interesting and respected writers. There’s the bar where most folks hang out until the wee hours of the morning. There are lunches with publishers, meetings with editors, and drinks with agents. What do you go to? How to spend the time? Obviously, any meeting with a writer’s agent or publisher is a must. After that, I prioritize lunches and dinners with fellow authors, ideally ones that either write similar stories (domestic suspense, for me), have experiences with similar people (same publisher or editor, for example) or have advanced from where I am and can offer sage advice.  As much as Bouchercon is a place to promote my work, it’s also a place to get out of the writing cocoon and meet people who can relate to the process of crafting a novel, working with a publisher, and promoting a book. These people have invaluable insights into the business. They can let me know whether my experience with a publisher is par for the course, exceptional, or worse than anticipated by relating their own experiences. They can provide insight into what I may have to contend with five, ten or fifteen years into my career. Most importantly, writers can help other writers feel less insecure.  Everybody needs coworkers–particularly people who work alone.      

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Swag or No Swag

 The thriller and mystery writer community’s biggest annual bash starts tomorrow in New Orleans. In the midst of packing for my 7a.m. flight today I made a big decision: NO SWAG. At last year’s Bouchercon, I brought a suitcase full of free giveaways to promote my first novel, Dark Turns. Bookmarks. Stress balls with my blue-hued book cover on them. Folders with a sticker advertising my personal Web site. Three boxes of business cards. I was cheap by comparison to some of the swag-laden authors that I encountered. Some writers splurged on custom printed pens. I saw t-shirts with pithy quotes from novels. A few scribes that I knew splurged on custom canvas bags with their book covers emblazoned on the front.  Aside from the bags and perhaps pens, I’m pretty sure most of the giveaway items ended up in the garbage. People fly to these conferences with carry-ons to avoid checked bag fees. The last thing most authors want after shelling out a bunch of cash for airfare and hotels–not to mention drinks at the bar–is to pay more to bring home additional luggage. It’s enough that authors tend to end conferences with a bunch of books that must be shoved into their bags or shipped home.  This year, I am bringing myself, one box of business cards and two copies of my book, which I’ll likely gift to friends. That’s it. The Widower’s Wife took a year of my life to go from first draft to finished product. In my opinion, it’s pretty valuable and so is everyone else’s book who will attend the conference. Authors and fans know better than to expect a writer to giveaway a year’s worth of their time for free. And I highly doubt that a stress ball will sell my book any better than a business card with some of my reviews featured on the front, the book cover and my photo–so whomever I passed my card to can remember who I am among the many, many people he or she is sure to meet.  Am I making the right decision? I don’t know. What is your opinion on swag? Wonderful or wasteful?    

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Book Promotion = More Writing

When I’m working on a novel, I write everyday. When I am promoting a book, it feels as though I’m writing every minute.  Why am I spending more time tapping away on a keyboard after finishing my latest novel than I did when I was working on it? In two words…guest blogging. For a debut or little-known author, guest blogging is a key tool in getting the name of your book out there. Sure, we mystery writers are all hoping that stellar reviews will sell our work (and they do). But unless you’re fortunate enough to have landed national press through your publisher, few people will visit your Amazon page to read any of that glowing critical praise. Folks need to either hear about your novel from a friend or read about it on a site that they regularly visit. In the month since The Widower’s Wife came out I’ve written: 2 posts for Booktrib.com (One story has yet to be published. Here’s the story that ran:How I Made Two Cinematic Book Trailers Each For Less Than $500) 1 post for Jungle Red Writers on why a horrible cruise inspired me to write my last novel. It’s scheduled to run on September 21.  1 post on How I Got My Agent for Writer’s Digest.  1 Q&A for Bookhounds. There are pictures of my dog in this one. 1 Q&A for MRS. MOMMY BOOKNERDS 1 article for Medium.com completely unrelated to my latest novel but, hopefully, enjoyable enough that people who like my writing style will consider visiting Amazon. 6 Pitches for articles in newspapers and blogs that would include my bio with a link to my book. 10 Letters to local libraries suggesting that they carry my book and volunteering to come speak. Dozens of book-related Facebook posts and tweets. All this writing is in addition to what I normally do here blogging with my fellow MissDemeanors and working on my next novel. Does all this blogging pay off? Well, I can’t know for certain. But I do know that I didn’t write nearly as much when my debut novel, Dark Turns, came out and I didn’t make any lists, despite pretty good reviews. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to write about writing or that there are so many books out there that writers have to assume much of the promotion themselves. The Widower’s Wife, as of this writing, is ranked in Amazon’s top 100 for all Mystery, Thriller and Suspense books. So I’m guessing that the blogging is having an impact. At the very least, all this writing lets my publisher know that I’m willing to do the hard work of promotion. And if they know I’m working, maybe they’ll work a bit harder getting the attention of other people who will write about my book.        

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Pitch Not-So-Perfect

             I tell long stories. Shortening them has always been a struggle.            From the time I was a child, I’d go on and on with details, trying to give a sense of place and character, while my overworked parents begged for the bare facts. Later, I became a newspaper reporter and the scourge of copy editors. Daily, I’d beg for another inch of newsprint to include a detail that I felt crucial to my story as the higher ups dismissed my pleas as trying to include needless, scene-setting “color.” Things weren’t much better when I moved to writing for business magazines. Serious people, I was told, didn’t want to know that some tech giant had twenty kinds of cereal in their cupboards. Such “fascinating” details were superfluous.            Eventually, I left daily journalism for fiction writing. Doing so felt like moving from a cramped New York city studio to a New Jersey McMansion. I was loaded with space. Finally, I would have eighty to a hundred thousand words to tell a story.           Imagine my disappointment when I learned that nearly every long-form writer needs to pen a pitch.            Pitches are the universe’s way of checking my ego. All the pride I feel after finishing a novel tends to dissipate when I’m forced to write the one page summary. In some ways, writing the pitch is worse than writing a short article. At least when I was a newspaper reporter I hadn’t already crafted my perfect story and then been told to write the Spark Notes version.            Thankfully, my agent has given me some sage advice on writing pitches. She’s told me not to try to get in every character arc or plot point. Agents and editors want a sense of the protagonist and the main problem. Maybe they’ll read about a subplot if its truly germane to the main action. They want a taste of my writing style. The pitch itself should leave the person pitched wanting to read the book, not feeling as though they already have.            Perhaps my favorite piece of pitch advice was to answer the questions: What If and So What. I used the technique to pitch my latest published book: The Widower’s Wife. WHAT IF a young New Jersey housewife fell overboard on a cruise ship with a large life insurance policy and an investigator must decide whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder. SO WHAT? And the life of her young daughter and others hang in the balance of his decision.  Here’s how the pitch came out:   Ana Bacon, a beautiful young housewife, tumbles off a cruise ship into dark and deadly waters, leaving behind a multi-million dollar life insurance policy for her small daughter. Investigator Ryan Monahan is a numbers man. So when his company sends him the Bacon case, he doubts that her death is the tragic accident that it seems. Initially, he assumes suicide. But the more Monahan uncovers about Ana’s life the more he realizes how many people would kill to keep her secrets hidden and that his ruling on the payout could leave a murder free to kill again.  What do you think about pitches? What is your favorite method?

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