Popcorn and Mysteries

Okay, I admit it. This blog is not about writing or reading. It is, however, about something critical to the creative process: what you eat while you watch your favorite mystery. My taste in mysteries and suspense runs the gamut. I have a special place in my heart for the BBC. I’ve watched all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders. I love Endeavor, Shetland, Loch Ness, Luther, Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s Wars, Wallander, Agatha Raisin, Inspector Lynley, Father Brown, Jonathan Creek, Zen and anything Agatha Christie old or new. I also happily watch Winter and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for a taste of Australia. New Zealand has The Brokenwood Mysteries.  Then there’s Elementary, Psych, Longmire and Bosch for something with an American accent. I could go on, but I won’t. While the shows may change, my snack of choice does not. It’s always popcorn. If I’m watching by myself, the topping will be whatever strikes my fancy. If I’m curling up to watch a mystery with my daughter, we tend to top our popcorn with truffle butter and parmesan. If I’m watching with my son, it’s frequently butter mixed with hot sauce from Belize. (My sister-in-law is Belizean and introduced the family to Mary Sharps. Our lives have never been the same.) If I’m making popcorn for the entire family, I usually stick to the classic butter and salt. I find high-fat, cultured butter is best because it has, to my taste buds, the right ratio of fat to milk solids. Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter is one of life’s true pleasures. My salt of choice is Baleine coarse salt ground in a salt grinder, but I’ve had great results with black salt from Maui and pink Himalayan salt, as well. I use an old air popper, carefully drizzling the  melted butter on the popcorn as it drops into the bowl. When all the popcorn is popped, I add eight to ten turns of ground salt and place another bowl on top so that I can shake the popcorn until the butter and salt (or parmesan) are evenly distributed. For me, there’s nothing better. It can be a meal in itself…and has been more times than I should confess. Having said that, I’m always on the prowl for both new mysteries and new snacks. So, what do you watch, and what do you eat while watching it?   

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The Space Between Things

This past week I flew from my apartment in New York City to my dad’s house in Salt Lake. I spent most of the flight writing, but when I came up against a brick wall in the story I’m working on, I looked out the window. There was nothing but blue sky and these beautiful cotton ball clouds. The white puffs were all the more intriguing to me because they floated with expanses of sky between them.  The more I write, the more I find myself paying attention to the space between things: the pauses between sentences, the blank page between one chapter and the next. In a world where speed is frequently considered an unmitigated good, reading and writing remind me that there’s a lot to be said for the silence before and after a thought.  When I read a good mystery or thriller, it’s that space that lets me feel the weight of my fear, anxiety, dread and hope. The writers I admire most use their pauses well. Sometimes I rush to turn the page because I just can’t stand not knowing what’s going to happen next. Sometimes I need a few moments to figure things out. Sometimes I just want to savor the words.  I like the nothingness between the something. I think maybe that’s the secret pleasure to reading. We can stop and give ourselves time whenever we want, for whatever reason. We can stop and enjoy the space between things.  

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A community of writers

 Starting this week we at Miss Demeanors are a community of writers + 1. Yes, we have a new Miss Demeanor all set to unveil. (I’ll keep you in suspense and let her share the bits of her story that she wants to. No telling tales out of school here!) What’s really important is that the community grows and keeps growing. Writing fiction is solitary. But not really. The work is done alone (by most people) but community keeps us sane. Community – whether in a writer’s group, at a conference or on line – is where you learn how to fail and how to succeed. It is where you realize you aren’t alone as you face the blank page or computer screen. It is where you celebrate the victories large and small (first page written, first time on a best sellers list).  In the week we broaden our community I’d like to hear where you find your writing OR reading community? 

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Where I Write

  Michele: I’m always fascinated by photos of where people write. Even better, I love to visit actual locations of authors. The Mark Twain House is one of my favorites. I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors to share where they write. I’ve included my own writing spots. One is in St. John; the others are in my she-shed writing sanctuary on Cape Cod.   Tracee: I split my time between my office, where I have a big computer monitor and face away from the window to avoid distractions, and outside on my front porch, where the view is lovely and calm. I tend to think of indoor work as the nuts and bolts of entering changes to the manuscript or fact-checking. The boring stuff. I prefer the porch unless the rain is blowing too hard or it is literally freezing. I’m fortunate that I’m well back from the street so it feels like an oasis, a perfect place to let my mind wander. It also helps that the dogs get to be outside….  Paula: I recently converted what was once a back porch into my new creativity space, which gives me room for reading and daydreaming on the daybed (which also serves as a guest bed in a pinch), as well as for writing (I sit cross-legged on the daybed with a lap desk and my laptop). I also have enough room for yoga and meditation. All of these things — reading, daydreaming, writing, doing yoga and meditating — are critical to my writing process.   Cate: The view from my writing space, as long as it’s sunny. When I look up from the computer, I like to see something pretty.   Alexia:  I write in a variety of places: airports, airplanes, hotels, coffee shops, home, etc. I bought a membership in a co-working space so I’d have someplace near home to write when home felt too distracting. My only essential elements are paper and pen for writing, laptop, internet access, and a power cord for editing. Alison: What a good question! I really don’t need anything except for my computer. I’ll write in bed, at a park or on a plane. Having said that, I like to work at a standing desk (aka a dresser I’ve stacked two thick books on top of so my computer is at exactly the right height for me) with my “view” from the back of our apartment in Manhattan.   Susan: This is the view from my office window. (It’s no wonder I keep writing about oak trees!)    Where do you like to write or read? Post your photos. I’ll send a free copy of Permanent Sunset, the second book in my Sabrina Salter series to Miss Demeanors’ favorite photo! (Must post by midnight, Sunday, July 23rd)

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The Little Reader

 I was just sitting on a neighbor’s porch late one lazy Saturday afternoon this summer with a group of other neighbors. We were chatting, watching people saunter by when a young girl, around eight or nine years old walked down the lane carrying a book half the size of her. People who are lugging books around with them always interest me, but a child this age intrigued me. I was tempted to call out, “Hey, what are you reading?” but then I noticed she kept turning around, as if she was waiting for someone to catch up with her. Remembering how my own children didn’t like to be the focus of adult attention at that age, I reconsidered saying anything to her that might embarrass and discourage her admirable reading habits. She turned the corner and I was satisfied just to know there was at least one budding reader out there.            I went back to the adult conversation, lost in the banter about the latest political folly, when I heard the barrel deep voice of a man thundering outside. “Zoey! Zoey, you come right back here. Right now. This minute.” I crooked my neck to see a large middle-aged man with a Johnny Walker-red face strutting past the porch and around the corner.            “Don’t make me come after you,” he said. I feared for Zoey if she didn’t obey him, but more if she did.            “I just want to go to my special place and read,” she said, slowly approaching the corner where he now stood, planted like a prison guard.            “I don’t care what you want to do. You come back here.”            “I just want to read my book,” she said with quiet defiance. But he won, and she followed behind him, clutching her book to her chest, her chinned bowed down.            I learned from my friends that Zoey was part of a large clan that was having a noisy, chaotic barbecue that evening and that her “special place” was a quiet nook where three bunk beds had been built, one on top of another.            Zoey has stayed with me for a couple of weeks now. Not in my home, but definitely within my heart. I ache for the young reader who simply needed to escape from raucous social event and to retreat into a spot where she could crawl into her book. How many times when stuck in a social situation have I said to myself, I just want to crawl into bed with my book?            It’s like that for many of us. Readers who as children didn’t care if the book was too heavy or the words too long. Books were our friends.  If you were lucky, like I was, there was an adult nurturing your love of books, not a book brut, chastising it. When I was a child, I would visit my grandmother each summer at the seashore. I’d arrive as soon as school was out. “Nanna” would take me to the library and let me take out as many books as they would allow. We’d return to her screen porch filled with the smell of the ocean where she’d point to a cushioned daybed piled with pillows. “You go start one of those books while I get you a lemonade. You worked so hard this year in school, dear, you need to rest and read.”  Nanna didn’t think I needed her permission to read. To her, it was like a medical prescription, essential for health.            Before you can be a writer, you have to be a reader, and I thank Nanna for taking my hand and walking me through the door to the library. I hope for Zoey and children everywhere, a nurturing adult is serving you words next to your vegetables and yogurt. The world needs readers and writers.            Who nurtured you as a young reader?  Was it the door to becoming a writer?   

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I Hear You: You’ll Never Know Dear by Hallie Ephron

  I am a confessed audiobook addict ever since many years ago when I decided to listen to a book on tape while wrapping Christmas gifts. Much as I had wanted to love Maeve Binchy’s books after friends had raved about them, I had been unable to get into them. But when I heard Tara Road read with brogue, I fell in love with Binchy’s story telling and went on to listen to every one of her books. I can still hear the words from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides read by Frank Muller, “Do it again, Mama.” Muller’s narration is celebrated by Conroy in a comment on Audible where he says about Muller, “He gave me, Pat Conroy, the author, a work of art, and I’ve been grateful ever since.”I’ve been hooked on audiobooks ever since. I used to listen while I was driving home from teaching in the evening and would be so involved in the book I was listening to, my husband would come out to the car to tell me to come in. Now that I can sync audiobooks with written books, I’m in heaven and spend less time in the driveway.            This week I am listening to Hallie Ephron’s latest suspense novel, You’ll Never Know Dear, which is narrated by Amy McFadden. Here’s a description of the plot from Amazon: Seven-year-old Lissie Woodham and her four-year-old sister Janey were playing with their porcelain dolls in the front yard when an adorable puppy scampered by. Eager to pet the pretty dog, Lissie chased after the pup as it ran down the street. When she returned to the yard, Janey’s precious doll was gone . . . and so was Janey. Forty years after Janey went missing, Lis—now a mother with a college-age daughter of her own—still blames herself for what happened. Every year on the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places a classified ad in the local paper with a picture of the toy Janey had with her that day—a one-of-a-kind porcelain doll—offering a generous cash reward for its return. For years, there’s been no response. But this year, the doll came home.            Already an Audiofile Earphones Winner, the book grabbed me right away. (Their review called it a “must-listen.” https://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/128893/) Unlike in many mysteries where there is predictably a dead body on the first page, Ephron seduces you with suspense, luring you with ordinary events that you know won’t last because something terrible has happened and something even worse is on it’s way. McFadden’s narration conveys a sense of foreboding without overdramatizing. Ephron and McFadden are a powerful duo, complimenting one another, unlike some books where it sounds like the narrator is competing with the author.           I wondered what Hallie thought about listening to someone else read her novel of suspense. “It’s scary listening to someone else read your book because, of course, it’s never the same as the voice you heard in your head when you were writing it. Our narrator, Amy McFadden, did a superb job. Her voice is clear as a bell, and she captured the characters perfectly including their southern accents and edge. I was thrilled.”She should be. The book is terrific with a solid plot and intriguing characters in its own right. Add to it the power of narration and you can’t miss. For me, You’ll Never Know Dear will fill hours while I am driving, walking, doing dishes and laundry, all the while in another world. Here’s a link to an excerpt (the first 5 minutes) from the audio book… https://soundcloud.com/harperaudio_us/youll-never-know-dear-by-hallie-ephron?in=harperaudio_us/sets/williammorrowbooks, if you’d like to join me.  

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La Valise Volee (The Stolen Suitcase)

   “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta When people ask me where do I get my ideas, one of my top answers is by traveling. Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but I see stories everywhere I go.          For instance, during a trip to Provence recently to fulfill an agenda item on my bucket list, which was to see fields of lavender in full bloom, one of my favorite suitcases was stolen off a bus. Fortunately it had my husband’s clothing in it, not mine, or you would be reading a story about an international incident in the New York Times. But the point is, once we recovered from the outrage and insult we suffered at the hands of a thief and then a very blasé bus company, I began to see the event as a story with all sorts of possibilities. Spending our first hour and a half in Aix en Provence sitting in the police station in ninety-degree weather without air conditioning was indeed inspiring. Not being able to speak much more than high school French, I found myself conjuring reasons why people were gathered in the dirty, antiquated lobby. I had seen people greet one another before with the French kiss-kiss, one on each cheek, but the sight of French cops bidding hello and farewell in that manner fascinated me. I couldn’t tell whether the expressionless silent people gathered around us were victims or perpetrators, so I made stories up. Before you knew it, I knew exactly what happened to la valise volee, what the demise of the culprit would be in the short story I would write, and where the ending would take place.              We had arrived that morning at the airport in Marseille after a short flight from Dublin, a city that I found equally as inspiring. We had chosen to stay in Dublin for four nights on an extended overlay so we could build value into our airfare, which I had been unable to reduce to what I think of as a palatable price. The Hop On, Hop Off bus offered us a great way to see the city as many times as we wanted. We kept going by a vacant over grown lot near the Houston train station where one bus driver told us no one ever got on or off in his twenty-two years of experience. Immediately I knew there was a dead body in the lot. At least that there was a dead body in the lot in my mind.            Later, during the trip home when I encountered a young pale-faced Irish woman traveling to Boston with her two little waifs, I knew they had to be part of that story, which was why they had to leave Dublin. Was the body the abusive husband she had done in? Or had he been murdered by someone looking for something of value they thought the husband had and now figured it was with the widow? Another short story idea was born, even though I am challenged to write short fiction. I’m much better at being long-winded. I blame it on the Irish in me.                So maybe these ideas will end up in books if I can’t manage to fit them into short stories. Or maybe they’ll end up in my pillow as dreams. But wherever they go, I never would have had them if I hadn’t traveled. Does travel inspire you. dear readers? How, and please share photos.     

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The Softer Side of Matt Sinclair

 The lovely ladies of Miss Demeanors have asked me to talk a bit about my main character, Oakland PD Homicide Sergeant Matt Sinclair. I can tell you he’s the most tenacious (stubborn), confident (arrogant), and methodical (obstinate) detective in the department. He’s in his late thirties, six-feet tall, dark brown hair, slim, athletic build, and dark, piercing eyes. The media loves him because he tells it the way it is, and the department brass hates him for the same reason, although they reluctantly put up with him because he solves the city’s toughest cases, even though he often leaves a wake of destruction behind him. He’s always getting into shootouts, fistfights, and car chases, and continually being called into the police chief’s office. Oh, wait! You don’t want to hear about Matt’s crime-fighting skills, the guns he carries, or the fast cars he drives? You want to know about Matt’s love life, you say. Matt would rather take on a bank robbery in progress without back up than talk about his relationships. In this area, Matt’s still a work in progress. Red Line, the first book in the series, opens with Matt returning to Homicide after a six-month suspension for wrecking a city car when driving drunk. He’s divorced, getting accustomed to a new partner (a no-nonsense woman), trying to stay sober, and seeing Liz Schueller, a sexy, blonde TV reporter, who uses him as her source for the inside scoop on Oakland’s murders. In return, Matt gets celebrity exposure on the nightly news, as well as…other benefits. Talking about the other benefits—after Matt takes care of business at the first murder scene, he visits Liz’s apartment for a steamy sex scene—literally steamy because Matt joins Liz in the shower.    Although many male readers were disappointed to learn that Liz left Oakland for an anchor position in Chicago at the end of the first book. What’s not to love about a woman who worked her way through college as a lingerie model and enjoys sex, right guys? However, the more astute female readers recognized Liz was not good for Matt.   In Thrill Kill, the second book in the series, Matt’s partner, Cathy Braddock, uses a ruse to get Matt to the county hospital where ER nurse, Alyssa Morelli, is working. When Matt sees her, the tough detective’s knees nearly give out on him. Ten years earlier he and Alyssa went out a few times, but she dumped him, knowing the hard-drinking, hard-living, long-haired undercover narc that he was at the time, was not boyfriend material. Alyssa had married a doctor, but that didn’t work out when she realized making babies and living the country club lifestyle wasn’t for her, so she returns to the ER, where life had purpose. Once Cathy drags Matt away from Alyssa, she says, “Like the rest of the world, she knows about your divorce, you and Liz, and your pattern of one-night stands. Alyssa is all goodness, and that’s rare in people who deal with the same slime as we do on a daily basis. Don’t disrespect her by using your Sinclair charm on her while you’re dating other women. She’s not just another girl for you to screw and run away from when it gets too real.” Matt remembers following Alyssa, wearing short shorts, up a hiking trail ten years earlier and thinking that although she might be all goodness, as Braddock said, she was still damn sexy. They begin seeing each other, and although Matt makes the effort, Alyssa lets him know she doesn’t sleep with a man until the time is right. I love a happy ending in my books, one where the hero solves the murder, saves the world, and gets the girl in the end. After Matt ended up alone at the end of the first book, I really wanted him to end up with someone in this book. But sadly, Matt wasn’t ready for a nice girl like Alyssa yet. Alyssa returns in Shallow Grave, and Matt is a bit more emotionally mature (although he’s still got a long way to go). There are more murders, high-speed chases, gunfights, and a twisty mystery full of lies and secrets that pushes Matt in a dark abyss. He sinks even lower when the chief strips him of his badge and gun. I’d like to tell you that Alyssa is there for him, but that would spoil the ending. Shallow Grave will be released on July 11, 2017.  BRIAN THIEM is the author of RED LINE, THRILL KILL, and SHALLOW GRAVE. He retired as a Lieutenant from Oakland PD, after years as a homicide detective and homicide unit commander. He’s also an Iraqi War veteran and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He has an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in Hilton Head, SC. www.brianthiem.com   Michele Dorsey from Miss Demeanors:   I am a huge fan of Brian Thiem’s police procedural series and want Matt Sinclair to have a solid and happy relationship!  Do we have any advice to help  Matt Sinclair with his love life?

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Things that Go Bump in the Night

  I held a book signing last night to celebrate Death in D Minor’s official release day on July 11. Ghosts play important roles in my novels but none showed up for the party. Their loss. The shrimp and grits and the brisket were to die for. In honor of my second book’s entry into the world, I posed a paranormal question to my fellow MissDemeanors. What’s your favorite ghost/scary story?(Alternate question for those who don’t like spooky stuff: Why don’t you like spooky stuff?) Cate Holahan:First off, I will admit that I believe in spirits.  My mom is Jamaican, a culture in which the belief in “duppies,” aka ghosts, is pretty prevalent. As a result, I don’t feel that strange about it. According to family lore, I could see them as a kid (though I might simply have enjoyed telling stories, even then). Plus, I was raised Catholic and believe people have souls that pass on to another plane of existence, so why wouldn’t one or two occasionally drop in?  All that said, I LOVE a good ghost story. I read R.L Stein’s Goosebumps religiously growing up and in a Dark Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz. The one that freaked me out the most was definitely the girl with the ribbon around her neck… let’s just say I wish she didn’t untie that ribbon.  As for present day, my new favorite ghost stories would have to be yours Alexia. I like to think that if any ghost talked to me today, I’d handle it with as much aplomb as Gethsemane.(AG: I didn’t put her up to saying that) Susan Breen:My favorite ghost story is “Afterward” by Edith Wharton. I love that story so much that for years I had my students read it, though I have to confess no one liked it as much as I did, except for one woman, who became a dear friend. I’ve never seen a ghost myself, but I can believe that a person torn away from this life suddenly might leave a part of himself behind. Often I’ve put some sort of supernatural thing in my writing. Michele Dorsey:Generally, I don’t like spooky stuff. Years ago, I read ghost stories to my daughter’s overnight camp companions and scared myself more than them. Then I had the unfortunate experience of reading a very good book while I was bedridden with the flu and was pleasantly distracted by good writing and a great plot. Until I reached the last few pages and the hero walked through a door. I mean through a door. And then some weird twisted ending took place as I threw (and this time I do mean “threw”) the book across the room. I felt cheated by the author who gave no warning of this dimension of the story and it has had me creeped out about fantasy, etc. ever since. But if fairly warned, I’m okay with ghostly stories, and yours, Alexia are gems.       I admit I have had a few “spiritual” moments where I’ve felt the presence of someone no longer with us. Interestingly, the two times I have traveled to Ireland I have felt a presence when I am near ancient stone formations. Another time was during shivasana  (the corpse pose) when I was on my yoga mat. Paula Munier:I admit that ghost stories scare me. But I like them anyway. I had an idea for writing my own ghost story once–long forgotten now–and so I read several. I remember the ones that scared me the most were Stephen King’s Bag of Bones and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. So much so that I abandoned ghost stories altogether until I read Alexia’s work. Now I’m hooked on ghost stories again!(AG: I didn’t put her up to it, either) Tracee de Hahn:I’ve never liked scary stories but that may be because my early grade school baby sitter used to watch the Friday night horror movie with me. I apparently didn’t have nightmares (although there was the unfortunate one about the bodies buried under the house and the ghost looked EXACTLY like my mother. When she came in that night to check on me I was frozen with fear. I never told her since I didn’t want to get my sitter in trouble for letting me stay up late and watch TV).  Growing up I didn’t believe in the paranormal but I also didn’t object to people believing in it/them. That changed when, during a visit home from college, I saw an apparition in my childhood home and it scared me literally stiff for hours. Since then I won’t discount anything. Your Gethsemane books may convert me to being a ghost story reader…. can’t wait to dive into book two this week! Robin Stuart:I love ghost stories, reading them and writing/telling them. The Shining by Stephen King is one of my all-time favorites. I read it in one sitting when I was 12 or 13, much to my parents’ dismay – I stayed up all night to finish it, too scared to sleep. That made a huge impression on me. I wanted to be able to do that, to evoke such strong reactions from my words alone. Hunting for ghosts in machines is one of the things that drew me to cyber forensics. It often feels like a real-life episode of Scooby Doo, an early ghost story influence, where my team and I unmask villains pretending to be something or someone they’re not. What’s your favorite scary story?   

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Stormy Weather

 I’m scheduled to host a book signing today (Thursday) to promote my second novel, Death in D Minor. I’ve booked a venue and a caterer, I’ve ordered pastries from the local bakery, I have swag and gift bags. And I have my fingers crossed I don’t get washed out. Horrid, extreme weather has hit my area with the force of a crashing meteor. Flooding, power outages, early business closures. A sharknado spinning by wouldn’t surprise me. The dark clouds that rolled across yesterday’s morning sky made 9 a.m. look like 9 p.m. Traffic was more terrifying than a Doré engraving. The weather people predict more of the same for today. Please let them be as wrong as they are when they predict sun on my days off. Yesterday’s bad weather did get me thinking about weather in literature. Weather, usually extreme, often sets the scene and creates an atmosphere without which the story wouldn’t be the same. Would The Shining be as terrifying on a warm spring day? Would Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feel as sultry and on-edge in the dead of winter? Can you imagine Usher’s house falling at noon in the summer sun? Moving beyond “a dark and stormy night,” weather often plays a more pivotal plot role than atmospheric backdrop. A drought sets The Grapes of Wrath in motion. A tempest does the same for The Tempest. Dorothy needed a tornado to get her to Oz. Robinson Crusoe needed a storm to shipwreck him. Arctic cold saves the world from the Blob. Weather is sine qua non in Gothic fiction. It mirrors characters’ feelings, foreshadows events, and highlights action. Weather can even be a character. The titular tornado in Twister proves a formidable foe. What are some of your favorite works of mystery fiction where weather serves as a plot device?And, if you’re in the Lake Forest, IL area, hope for decent weather and stop by LifeWorking Coworking, 717 Forest Ave, for a book signing (and food!) between 5:30 and 7:30 pm

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