Talking Murder, Red Shoes and Cocktails with L.A. Chandlar

 For those of you who get the Fresh Fiction Box every month, you’re already familiar with the Barnes and Noble best-selling author L.A. Chandlar (Laurie). Her first book in The Art Deco mystery series, The Silver Gun, was published this fall. The second in the series, The Gold Pawn, is scheduled to be released in September 2018. Laurie and I first met at an event for the New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Anyone who’s met Laurie can attest that her energy and love of life are infectious. She’s brought all that enthusiasm to her books and the business of writing. Between work, traveling for book signings and being a mom to two boys, Laurie has very little extra time. Luckily for me, we live in the same neighborhood and were able to meet up for a cocktail and a chat about writing.   D.A. Bartley: For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, can you give us a synopsis of The Silver Gun?
 
L.A. Chandlar: Sure! 1936, New York City, when Lane Sanders, aide to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, is threatened by an assailant tied to one of the most notorious gangsters in the city, even the mayor can’t promise her safety. Everything seems to hinge on an elusive childhood memory of a silver gun. With a mounting list of suspects, Lane must figure out how the secrets of her past are connected to the city’s underground crime network – before someone pulls the trigger on the most explosive revenge plot in New York history… D.A. Bartley: Mayor La Guardia is a central historical figure in your mystery, but you don’t focus on the shanty towns in Central Park, breadlines or soup kitchens. What guided you in your portrayal of New York City during the 1930s? 
L.A. Chandlar: I moved to NYC just after 9/11, and I saw first-hand how a big city handles adversity: with a lot of compassion, humor, art, sacrifice, and cocktails. Around that time, I picked up a biography on Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City’s 99th mayor, and I was fascinated with him (he’s hilarious) and the time period. I found I had pigeon-holed the Thirties into ONLY the Depression. But there was so much more coming out of that time that just the Depression: the art and music was incredible, women were rising in the workforce, the wit and humor was fabulous, and of course the cocktails! I wanted to tell that part of the story. I love the tension of that time. It was the era of the soup lines at the same time is was the era of the cocktail. I think it’s a story that has something for us today. I love that the era was full of innovation and magnificent art that changed the world – despite adversity.
 
D.A. Bartley: Among your many talents, one thing that has impressed me about you, Laurie, is your originality with marketing. Even though I didn’t win any (hint, hint), I loved the chocolate sauce give away at your Barnes & Noble signing on 86th Street. Can you tell us what you’ve done to get your book noticed?
 
L.A. Chandlar:  Well, I always figure it doesn’t cost anything to be creative. There are two points in marketing. One point, is to just get your book noticed. The second point is to make it memorable. Since this is my first book with a major publisher, I wanted to do things that made it (and me) stand out. I started thinking about anything that is visual about the series, and that might connect with other organizations. Visually, the protagonist loves her red Mary Jane shoes. So, I started the #RedShoeSquad. At signings and conferences, I gave away fun swag to anyone who wore red shoes. I found a great bottle opener that was literally a silver gun (like the title) and a cool red velvet choker / bracelet with a silver gun charm. The funny thing is, they were cheaper than the typical swag like pens and post-it notes. When I was at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, I wore my red shoes and I had several people stop me and tell me they’d seen my shoes on Twitter. I start a lot of videos with a shot of my red shoes as a visual cue. Another major marketing tool was from the fact that art is a major theme. I wanted to emphasize the potency of art in our own lives, and during the Art Deco period. So there is a piece of art that is highlighted and in the background of every novel, that comes alongside the main character –and sometimes a villain– as they navigate their story. The Silver Gun takes place in 1936, the year the Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia founded the first public arts high school, also known as the Fame School, from the TV show and movie in the Eighties. I organized a book fair with Barnes & Noble that benefitted the school. It was so fun! So it not only got my book noticed, but it was a great way for my work to “give back.” We even had several freshman parents contribute a large donation that enabled us to fulfill the entire Wish-List from the librarian.
 
The chocolate sauce you mentioned –I’ll bring you some– is actually mentioned a lot in the book. Sanders is an old candy company from Detroit and the protagonist was born there. So that was a natural choice for a fantastic gift. Again, it links in with the book, but also makes it stand out. 
D.A. Bartley:  Which of your marketing techniques have been the most successful? Have there been any surprises?
 
L.A. Chandlar: There are so many marketing things you could do, that it’s very daunting. If you’re not careful, you’ll spend all your time marketing and never writing. OR you can be paralyzed by all the things other people do. The key, I think, is finding what you do best, and what brings you life when you’re doing it. If you do things that suck the life out of you, you’ll kill yourself. It will all become a chore and it won’t come across as authentic. I like events and creative marketing. I love videos and those are big hits. I also love cocktails and since this era was the era of the cocktail, I give vintage cocktail recipes in my newsletters. The videos and the cocktail recipes get a LOT of hits. Those are the two most successful things. I think the biggest surprise to me, is that even with all the things I’ve done, I still get overwhelmed with the amount of marketing you have to do. I still wrestle with finding a balance. You have to continually kick yourself in the pants and remind yourself that there’s room for all of us, we each have a unique story that only we can tell, and just STOP COMPARING. Self-awareness is one thing, but when it turns to self-doubt, it’s never –ever– helpful.
 
D.A. Bartley: Will you give us a teaser for book number two?
 
L.A. Chandlar: Yes, it’s yummy. It’s a sequel, but it will be able to be read as a stand-alone, too.
 
A family friend of the mayor’s, a notable NYC banker, vanishes without a trace. Days later a bloody knife belonging to the beloved friend is found. In the back of a notorious criminal. As an old underground crime network seems to be rising again, Lane Sanders, aide to the mayor, decides to go back to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan to face the ghosts of her past, in hopes that she’ll find clues to unravel both the mystery of the missing banker and the newly resurrected crime syndicate that threatens the city. As Lane tries to discover the meaning of a gold pawn, the seeming lynch pin of the organization, she realizes the real question isn’t what is the gold pawn, but who?
D.A. Bartley: For all you L.A. Chandlar fans, Laurie is holding a Social Media Sweepstakes. You’ll be automatically entered for every social media post with a photo of you and The Silver Gun and for every review posted (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodReads, etc.) before November 10th. The Grand Prize is a great one: Laurie will name a character after you in her next book The Gold Pawn. 
 

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Throwing the Book

  Michele:    Some books have such unexpected endings that the reader reacts physically. I have thrown books twice in my life when I felt duped by the writer. Anita Shreve invoked the wrath of many fans with The Last Time They Met. I know readers have reacted hysterically when a favorite character is killed, particularly if he or she is part of series. Ask Elizabeth George. I’ve heard authors discuss invoking terror and distress in the hearts of their readers just to shake things up a bit and to challenge themselves.    The question is what book(s) had an ending that inspired a dramatic reaction from you and why? What do you think about using this as a technique as a writer?   Paula:   There’s an old adage in publishing: The first page sells the book, the last page sellsthe next book. So writers should beware endings that infuriate or frustrate orperplex readers. For my part, I’m a typical reader: I don’t much like ambiguousendings, or endings in which the main action is not resolved, or endings whereeverybody dies. I remember the ending of My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoultwhich dismayed me. I saw it coming, and still it dismayed me. And I wasn’t alone.I saw Jodi Picoult at an event for the book, she wrote after that one, and she toldthe audience she had a feeling that many readers had not forgiven her for thatending quite yet. And the visceral response of the audience confirmed herfeeling. If that had been her first book, she may not be the bestselling authorshe is today. A cautionary tale I take very seriously as a writer, an editor, andan agent. Note: XXX below is to avoid a SPOILER Susan:  I love Game of Thrones and I felt I took XXX’s death reasonably well. But after I saw the Red Wedding, I sat there with my mouth agape. (I read the book afterwards and it wasn’t as shocking by then.) I think XXX’s death actually changed my feeling about the book. I still enjoy it and am awed by Martin’s imagination and writing. But I will never trust him again and because of that I don’t think I ever loved the later characters as much as the early ones. But that might just be me being dramatic. Paula:    I love Game of Thrones. George RR Martin is a hoot. He’ll kill off anybody. It takes a really skilled writer with a large cast of characters to pull that off and get away with it.  Susan:   I think I saw somewhere a query letter that he wrote before GOT was published, warning the publishers that no one would be safe. Clearly, it has worked for him!  Tracee:    I can’t think of an ending that angered me. Okay, when Tolstoy killed off Prince Andrei in War and Peace I didn’t forgive him, but that’s been a very, very long time ago and I’ve come to terms with it. Andrei did act like an arrogant heel and I suppose it had to end this way (maybe I do have some latent anger…..).ps I may have to go on Wikipedia and read the episode descriptions for Game of Thrones so I don’t get too attached to characters who have a short life span….. Cate:    Shutter Island inspired a dramatic reaction from me along the lines of “Holy S—, how did I not see that coming?” Then I reread the book and realized I should have totally figured out that–spoiler alert–something was wrong with the main character. I think some of my favorite books have spurred that kind of “how was I duped” reaction. But I always re-read to see if the author was playing fair and, if I find that they weren’t (the amnesia was selective or they were consciously lying to the reader the whole time even when we were supposed to be hearing their unadulterated thoughts from a first person perspective, for example, then I get pretty upset).  Susan:    Disregard what I said, Tracee. No one dies. 🙂 Robin:    Stephen King is notorious for killing off sympathetic characters. It was hard to take at first but now I’m used to it. When I read new King books I try to guess who’s he building up to kill off. Usually I’m right but Mr. Mercedes set up two characters for sacrifice. I had a 50/50 chance and guessed wrong. There’s a certain pattern to the sympathetic death in his recent work and I’d hoped the setup was because he would break it. He didn’t. I won’t elaborate because it would be a spoiler to at least 3 books I can name off the top of my head.The twists in Gone Girl made me reread previous chapters to see if there were clues I missed. In that case I wasn’t angry, I was impressed. Except for the ending. It was unexpected because the rest of the book was so tightly wound, the ending seemed banal by contrast.An older book I really struggled with was Bless The Beasts And Children. It angered me for lots of reasons and I do recall throwing it across the room when I finished. I expected redemption. The rest of the book was horrendous and I held out hope for some sort of a happy ending. It packed such an emotional punch that I still remember scenes vividly and I was in middle school when I read it. On the off chance it’s on someone’s “to be read” list I don’t want to reveal much. Let’s just say I’m really happy about certain taboos now so I don’t have to go through chapter after chapter of unpleasant surprises. Alexia:   I can’t think of any book that made me mad enough to throw it. I don’t mind if sympathetic characters are killed off if their death serves some purpose. (Yes, I’m a Hero’s Journey believer.) My favorite characters often don’t survive for the sequel because I’m drawn to the character most in need of redemption (you know, the “bad guy” who, like Han Solo, is really a good guy underneath the selfish exterior) and finding redemption seems to make characters number one with a bullet. They’re redeemed by sacrificing themselves for the good of others. I’m okay with tragic endings.  I find “happy ever after” cloying if it’s just done to “disney-fy” the story and didn’t follow from events. I can think of several short stories and books that disappointed me. Some were about rotten characters doing rotten things to other rotten characters because the author saw one too many 3rd-rate, neo-noir movies and thought they should write that way because that’s all there is to noir fiction. Some failed to live up to their super-hype. Their twists weren’t half as clever as the author thought they were and/or the main characters were too stupid to live past chapter three. Some were obvious rip offs of better books or they were so “trendy” they were nauseating. Or they were as pretentious as their authors–ten pages in and you knew the author was convinced they were writing an “Important Book”. My reaction to these is usually just to close the book and put it in the Donate to Charity pile (or return it unfinished to the library). The only type of books I genuinely dislike, as a class, are those where someone takes an iconic series character created by a now-deceased author and tries to continue the series but can’t resist adding their own spin. (“Reinterprets the character for a modern audience.” No. Just don’t.)  I don’t care much for re-tellings of iconic stories for the same reason. The only books that have really pissed me off fell into this category. I swore at them but didn’t throw them. Alison: Hmmm. I had to think about this question because my threshold for throwing a book across the room is too low to wait until the end. I’ll close a book never to open it again for a number of reasons, mostly dealing with sloppy research, writing or underestimating the reader’s intelligence. My persnickety list of my pet peeves includes: not getting historical details right, making a main character an expert in an area and then misspelling a word in said area of expertise, not playing fair (although I love to watch Sherlock and Elementary, I do not read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he pulls rabbits out of his hat), being able to guess whodunit as easily as figuring out romantic entanglements in the first five minutes of the Love Boat, and anachronistic dialogue. As I write this, I have now doomed myself to make all of these errors. I will conclude with this: please forgive me. Your turn, dear readers. And like our not-so-dainty Miss Demeanors, don’t hold back/

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Confessions of an Obnoxious Morning Person

 Yes, I am one of those blasted morning people. I confess I wake up at the ungodly hour of 5:00 a.m. or earlier, usually ready to leap out of bed and embrace a new day. Energy surges through me as my feet hit the floor. I just can’t wait to begin the day.            I know, you hate me, unless you are part of the “Morning Club.” We awaken cheerful even before coffee, optimistic, thrilled at the prospect of a new day. We whistle or hum waiting for the coffee to brew while watching to see what kind of sunrise will arrive. Will there be dramatic swirls of pink and purple that morph into golden yellow or will it be the dainty variety of pink and blue worthy of a newborn’s nursery?            We ponder what we have to do during the day ahead and wonder how much of it we will accomplish, confident that success lies ahead. And then we dig in. For me, that means I begin to write so I can tap into my natural clock. Ideas abound, words flow, as I click away on the keyboard. I have to be judicious and not allow distractions like social media tap into my energy and suck the creative wind out of me. Often that’s easier said than done.             But if I am disciplined, I will do a very quick check of email and social media to see if there are any infernos to douse. Little fires can wait. I don’t turn on the television but I do check the headlines of the Boston Globe and New York Times to see if I should be evacuating. If all is well, I begin to write, while the birds sing, school buses swallow children from corners, and commuters vacate the neighborhood. I enter a world that belongs only to me, where I am safe and in command.            By noon, I’m far less brilliant than I was just hours earlier. A dullness has set in, so I move on to other tasks that require less energy. I can edit what I’ve written, but only as a first sweep. I can turn to social media, where people are tolerant of insipidness. I pay bills, start dinner, and go for a walk.            By 4:00 p.m., I am the most uninteresting person on the block. By 6:00, I’ve pretty much lost the ability to converse, other than to throw epithets at the newscasters I’ve finally let into my living room. I become lost in the absurdities that surround me. Why can’t Mike shut up about his pillows? Do you have to have the shoulder length “beach waves” look and be under 35 to get a job as a female television reporter? Why would you take a prescription drug that has 37 side effects, including possible loss of vision or life?            Then I get really cranky, especially when I witness neighbors walking their dogs without poopy bags and consider starting a neighborhood patrol. I worry about the weather the next day, what that nut in Korea will do next, and if we have enough coffee for the morning. Nothing seems to go right. Everything has become bleak.            It’s time for me to go to bed, to recharge my depleted battery and let you night owls take care of the world. I’ve posted a few photos of what you’re missing.            Are you a night owl or an early bird? How’s it working for you?

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My Life in Lists

 I come from a long line of list-makers. My mother had beautiful penmanship. She wrote lists each morning on the backs of used envelopes. Mostly they were grocery lists. She liked to do her “marketing” every day so she’d be sure to get out of the house.             My maternal grandmother also wrote lists every morning in small dainty writing. She would sip coffee and chew on toast at the breakfast table each morning cataloguing what she had to do or buy that day. Her “to do” lists were also most often scripted on the back of an envelope.             Both my mother and grandmother tossed their lists into the trash after they were completed. This is when I should have realized I was meant to be a writer, because when I began making lists, I couldn’t bear the thought of discarding them. Nor could I consider writing them on the backs of used envelopes. For one thing, I started making lists long before I began receiving mail.             I fell in love with notebooks at an early age, particularly spiral ones that I could open and close many times without damaging the binding. They were a perfect place for my own daily lists. Before long, I had dedicated a separate spiral notebook for my daily lists.                       At the beginning of the notebook I would enter a start date and when it was full, I would return to the first page to enter the end date. Every day had its own page dated at the top, sometimes with a notion about why that day was special. “March 14, XXXX HBD Uncle Buddy.”             I tried to prioritize what needed to be accomplished during the day. As I completed each task, I took my favorite pen de jour (that’s another topic for another day) and crossed off the item with delight and sometimes, relief. “Sit for bar exam” or later in life “colonoscopy prep” were crossed off with an added notation. “Whew!” “Yay!” Usually my list was filled with more mundane chores. Pay bills, email or call so-and-so, buy paper towels. When I didn’t complete a task, I would circle it and sometimes scold myself. “Bad girl.” Then the item would go on the next day’s list.             I saved all of these notebooks until a few years ago after viewing the mountain of spiral binders and wondering why. Why save notebooks with daily “to do” lists, especially when I also journal? I found a place to perch next to the piles and began perusing them. In short time, I realized these lists chronicled my life better than any journal I had filled. “Buy food for post-funeral party.” (You might have to be Irish to understand why it’s a party.) “Lose weight for wedding.” “Take daughter for G.I. test.” “Ballet recital.” “Finish taxes.” Many “to do’s” were personal, but most were the meat and potatoes of the daily life I have led. “Grocery shop.” “Prep for class.” “Yoga”               I tossed the notebooks and almost immediately regretted it. When my daughter asked about a family event, I could no longer play family historian and reach for the list that recorded it. I realized I should have chucked my journals, which are filled with my interpretation of what is contained in the list notebooks. But the notebooks are a form of history.             I’ve resumed the practice of keeping my “to do” lists, but now I am more conscious of what I write. I’ve decided that by writing what I want to do and what I need to do, elevates my commitment to what is important to me. I write each list with intention. Writing is always at the top of my list, but buying tissues and toilet paper also has its rightful place. And I’m planning a big bonfire for those journals.             How about you? Do you write lists? What do they tell you about your life? 

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Seeing Clearly: A St. John Love Story

 Steve appreciated art, but was never a collector, certainly not an art connoisseur. But when he looked online at items listed for the silent auction at the Annual 31st Gifft Hill School Auction on St. John where we spend winters, he was captivated and rushed to show me.            The portrait of who we guessed was a young adolescent West Indian girl was small yet compelling. Her eyes were turned to her right where she stared with pursed lips and slightly flared nares. She held her head high. I saw vigilance in her gaze. I wanted to protect her. The painting was titled, “Seeing Clearly.”            Steve returned to the portrait several times before the auction, which was to benefit a private school on St. John we had witnessed during the past thirty years grow from tiny seeds to a full campus for children of all ages on island.    The school and its students are as generous to the community as the community is to it. A real love story about children, community, learning, and a tiny island.            The painting was the work of Kimberly Boulon, who donated it and several other larger paintings. “Kim” is an impressive artist whose own love for St. John can be seen in the strokes and light in her work. All of the proceeds, not just a percentage, which is fairly common practice, from Kim’s works were to go to Gifft Hill School. More love.            We arrived at the auction, greeting the Digiacomos, who had generously included us at their table with other island friends. Steve and I rushed to the Silent Auction and found “Seeing Clearly,” who was more captivating in person. Those eyes. What was she looking at? What had she seen? Why was she so alert? What had happened in her young life?            We made a small bid and tried to leave “Seeing Clearly” behind, but we could not abandon her. We were both drawn to this picture, which had now touched us like no other piece of art. We began our own vigil, stalking with our eyes the few other bidders who seemed to want what we were now calling, “our girl.” In a last minute stealth maneuver, I dashed from the dinner table where we were now seated and returned to the silent auction room. I concealed myself behind a nearby pillar and when the last main competitor finished her final offer, I darted to the painting and upped the bid by twenty-five dollars just before the announcement that the silent auction had ended.            At home in our tiny cottage, we giggled about where we should hang our new fine “aht,” inserting our Boston accents into the silliness, the magic of the night. After several attempts, we found a spot for our girl, where she could be seen easily. I can’t ever remember a painting drawing my eyes to it so often before. We were clearly smitten with the addition to our family.            When it came time to return home to Cape Cod, we agonized. Should we leave her behind where life was familiar? Or did we bring her home with us to spend the summer on the Cape? How would she fare on the flight? Would she be okay alone while we were gone?            Steve decided she belonged on St. John and could watch over our home until we returned in November, a plan that made sense to me. Until an unthinkable category five hurricane named Irma terrorized our island, only to be followed closely by another category five hurricane called Maria, Coral Bay, our island village, had felt the brunt of the storms.            Once we were assured neighbors and friends were safe, we wondered how was our girl? Why had we left her behind? In the weeks that followed, we learned the island had been splintered and looked as if a bomb had exploded. Shock, sadness, and a little self-pity set in. Why when we had just figured out how to spend the final chapter of our lives had this happened? And why, oh why, did we leave our girl behind?            An email string connected me to Kathy, a neighbor, who had moved into the cottage above us after we had left for the summer. She offered to have her husband, who had stayed on island through it all, check our cottage. I told her there was only one thing we really cared about and that was our girl and that Kathy was the best neighbor I had never met. I had been having nightmares about St. John in which “Seeing Clearly” was floating upside down in a few feet of filthy water. When the photo of her sitting on our table looking in decent shape arrived by email, I choked up. When I learned Mike Lachance was coming up to see his wife, Kathy, in New Hampshire for a week and was bringing our girl with him, I cried. When we met Kathy and Mike last week, Steve and I felt like we were being reunited with family. Because we were. St. John is affectionately known as “Love City.” An island where a community of people have chosen to live together in isolation and harmony where differences are embraced and where “One Love” is more than a song. Where “Love Thy Neighbor” is a practice, not a slogan. Where generosity is inherent. The Gifft Hill School, where we first found our girl, opened its doors to all island children just days after the storm when it was evident the public schools were damaged. A real circle of love.Love. That’s the thing about St. John that is difficult to convey in words. But maybe you can in a painting. Has a piece of art ever touched your life and become a part of your story?     

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The Heebie Jeebies

  ‘Tis the season for ghoulies  and ghosties and long-legged beasties. In the spirit of Halloween, I asked my fellow Missdemeanors to talk about the spookiest place they’ve ever been. Me, the spookiest place I’ve ever been was the Market Square Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson rented a room in the tavern while he studied law with George Wythe. The building’s been restored since then and it operates as a hotel. Rumor has it, Jefferson’s ghost haunts the halls. I didn’t see the late President when I stayed there several years ago but I did have an odd experience. There’s a small front room with chairs and tables and bookcases; a place to gather for conversation with your fellow travelers or to relax with a book. My second night at the tavern, I decided to explore. I headed for the front room but stopped in the hallway just outside, overwhelmed by the sensation that something was in there. No other hotel guests were around and I couldn’t see or hear anyone. I just knew something was in there and that I didn’t want to meet whatever it was. I prefer my spirits in a glass and ghosts on the page, not up close. I hesitated in the hall, telling myself I was being silly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. In fact, it grew stronger. I turned around and rushed back to my room, glancing behind me to make sure nothing followed me. I locked my door and stayed in for the rest of the night. I went back in the morning but the weird sensation was gone. The front room was just a room. Alison: Oh, good question, Alexia! The first time I remember having actual chills was in a torture chamber in the bowels of some castle in Luxembourg. I was probably about twelve. I’d been to other torture chambers before and hadn’t been particularly moved. What made this chamber different was that someone had painted pictures of both the victim and the torturer along side each device. The torturers all had twinkles in their eyes. I don’t know if they were actually smiling, but it was clear to me they were enjoying themselves. The idea that someone could torture another human being and enjoy it haunted me then and still does today.  Cate: I avoid spooky places because I believe in all that stuff. The scariest place that I’ve ever been was in a park near Amish country, Pennsylvania. My friend and I got lost in the woods. After hiking for five hours and getting more and more lost, we ended up on the highway in bathing suits, at twilight, encircled by a biker gang that didn’t realize we were both twelve years old. We made it back though, thanks to some sheepishly provided directions after we tearfully explained to said biker gang that we were lost kids that just wanted their moms.  My parents had thought we were still at the park watering hole while they packed up with the younger siblings. They didn’t realize that we’d tried to come back six hours earlier. Ahhh… the old days of parenting pre cell phones. My kids have GPS-enabled watches that make calls and can be tracked by my phone. I’m KITT to their Michael. #knightrider. #helicoptermom #technologyrocks  Tracee: Like Cate, I avoid scary places so I don’t have a long list to cull through to find the scariest one. (I absolutely avoid any Haunted House or similarly ‘fake’ scary place!) The scariest experience by far in my life wasn’t about the place per se but what happened. I (still to this day) swear I saw the devil in my childhood bedroom. I was college age at the time and despite my mature viewpoint (ha!) it took me a long time to recover, if that is what you could call it. I won’t bore everyone with the details but it was genuinely terrorizing and I remember each detail with absolute clarity these many decades later. In terms of a scary place… nothing has come close although I have visited quite a few dungeons. There was one in Germany (can’t remember where) that was particularly frightening. They must have had an excellent display of torture equipment! VERY realistic. Robin: I’d say the spookiest place I’ve been was multiple places visited during a “Sinister London” tour I took, led by a drama student. He took us driving and walking through neighborhoods and locations of some seriously creepy historical relevance. One of the spookiest spots was a cell beneath a pub used as a “pauper’s prison.” Between the actor’s dramatic telling of what happened in there, the chill of the night air from a grate in the ceiling that opened to the sidewalk, and an unexplained moaning sound in an empty corner of the cell that the tour leader insisted had nothing to do with him or the tour, our group of 9 quickly diminished as 4 people bailed, too scared to go on. By the time the tour completed it was down to me, my partner and the tour leader. Susan: Generally I try to avoid spooky places, unless I’m on a ghost tour with my fellow Miss Demeanor. But I remember some years ago wandering around the Antietam Battlefield and walking through a creek among the cornfields, if I’m remembering right, and I could almost feel the presence of all the soldiers who’d died there that day. It was a very heavy feeling. Paula: Like Susan, I avoid spooky places, having once been carried screaming out of a haunted house when I was small, and again in my 40s. I kid you not. I was raised in a military family and we moved all the time. There were several times when I walked into a house for the first time   and felt as if I’d lived there before. Or could feel the presence of other spirits. Mostly they were friendly, and didn’t bother me. It was like a sort of déjà vu homecoming. The only place that’s really ever haunted me is Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. We visited that sacred space when I was 10 years old, and I never forgot it. Thinking about it now I still get goosebumps. And say a prayer. Michele: The spookiest place I have ever been is alone in a ten by ten room with no windows in a maximum security reception and diagnostic center, otherwise known as a prison for very bad boys, interviewing a man accused of killing his wife with a shotgun while his toddler watched. I had been appointed by the court to investigate, represent, and make recommendations regarding the best interests of this child. Because I had been a pediatric nurse, I often was appointed in cases regarding children, but this one stands out in my memory, not because of the tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where children are the secondary victims of their parents’ crimes and misconduct. And I had been around plenty of men and women who had “gone wrong.” But this man made my skin crawl as he laughed at the ridiculous thought he would ever kill his wife, especially when his kid would have full view. I could smell evil and knew he had done just that, and had enjoyed it. Think Clarice interviewing Hannibal Lector. I would rather sleep deep in a dark remote forest alone than be in a room with that man again, even with armed guards two feet away. What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever been? 

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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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Ready to try a new genre?

 Earlier this week we hosted Jonathan Putnam and Art Taylor. They’re both mystery writers, however they occupy a niche different than ours – Jonathan with historical mysteries and Art with a focus on short fiction. As the week went on, I found myself thinking about plot lines outside of the mystery genre. My question to you is: if you chose to write something ‘different’ what would it be? I often feel a pull toward historical fiction (not in the mystery genre, although at the heart of every story there is a mystery) and, in particular, a big epic. Maybe even a multi-generational, multi-country sprawling story. Anyone else feel the pull? ROBIN: I’m with you, there are always mysteries, regardless of the genre. Without questions, there are no conflicts, thus no story. I sometimes feel a pull towards literary fiction, something family-drama-ish. It’s been fascinating reading my parents’ letters to each other from the time they were dating up through their honeymoon. The letters answered some questions about my own family’s history while raising new ones. All of it is fodder that I’ll use in present and future works. MICHELE: Yes! Not only do I feel a pull, I had a fictional woman named Elise whispering in my ear, pestering me constantly, until I told her story. I wrote an entire romantic comedy about her, fully enjoyed the experience, but never named the book, nor did I shop it. What’s with that? I love a romantic farce! (Aren’t most love stories farcical?) What do you think about Elise? Shall I excavate her from the bottom of a desk drawer? Or let sleeping lies lie? Then, there’s Madeline who’s begging me to tell about her adventures as a domestic servant for Boston Brahmins on Beacon Hill after fleeing Ireland. I hope my fellow Miss Demeanors also hear voices and that it isn’t just me. SUSAN:  I came to being a mystery writer after having spent ten years as a short story writer and then another ten years as a literary fiction writer, if it is respectable to describe oneself as that. Writing mysteries was my secret pull all those years, and I’m so glad I surrendered to it. Michele, I’m very intrigued by Madeline and would love to hear her story.  ALISON: I feel as though I’m baring my soul: one of my guilty pleasures is watching shows like “Odd Mom Out” and “Keeping up Appearances,” (Anyone else love Hyacinth Bucket, oops, Bouquet?), as well as the supposedly more high-brow “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey.” I love fluffy stories layered on top of denser questions about the dynamics of socioeconomic class. I’ve written half of a mystery based on the idea of a mother who goes a little off the rails when her perfect child does not get into the perfect school. I wouldn’t have believed applying to independent schools in Manhattan could really be so dramatic if I hadn’t gone through it myself. Don’t get me wrong. Most people are lovely and wonderful, but the ones who aren’t…well, let’s just say there might be some justifiable homicides out there. CATE: I would love to write a magical realism / dystopia book about a suburban American mom who keeps seeing signs of the apocalypse as she has to go around living her regular life. It would start with an odd chalk sign that she sees exiting her local coffee shop. She would keep going throughout her mundane week, all the while the signs would be building up. The protagonist would occasionally hear things on the television or the radio that would be clear evidence. But she’d keep ignoring them because she lives in a bubble and is relatively happy in her contained world. It would end with a flood and fire, and some greater commentary on interconnectedness and willful blindness and the struggle between individual survival and collective awareness. Maybe someday. I’m not mature enough to write it now without it being awful. Also, I’d probably need to reread revelations and ain’t nobody got time for that at the moment. ALEXIA: I would love to write a science fiction novel along the lines of Blade Runner or RoboCop. Of course, both of those are police procedurals set in the future so maybe writing a sci-fi cop story isn’t so different from writing mysteries after all. I’d also like to write a middle grade fantasy novel with a princess who saves everybody instead of waiting to be saved, historical fiction about the Black professional middle class in the first half of the 20th century, and a good old-fashioned ghost story. PAULA: I write a lot of nonfiction, and enjoy it, especially the books on writing and mindfulness and creativity. But I’d love to write women’s fiction someday. In my dotage…. TRACEE: Glad to hear I’m not the only one who hears (in Michele’s words) voices in my head….. all those characters who try to pull me into stories I’m not quite ready to write. I’m going to keep an eye on Cate and see if she is carrying Revelations around. First sign of a breakout into a new genre! (Paula, I hear your voice whispering in my ear….. establish yourself and then branch out! Don’t splinter too early! Good advice.) Anyone else out there ready to break type and go out on a writing limb?

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