Tag: #missdemeanors


Back to School

I’m feeling just ever-so-slightly anxious. No, let me rephrase that: I’m a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (to borrow a phrase from Pedro Almodóvar’s fabulous film). Every few minutes I take deep belly breaths to loosen the knot in my stomach. I’m doing guided meditations with embarrassing frequency so that a woman with a soothing British accent can advise me to “watch difficult emotions without resistance.” I’m drinking copious amounts of tea because holding a warm mug makes me feel a little calmer. Why? My revisions for Blood Atonement are due uncomfortably soon. I’ve been diligently working for weeks without feeling at all nervous. I set up a schedule, made a plan and have been (mostly) disciplined. Yesterday, though, I looked at the calendar and became overwhelmed with a jumble of distinctly unpleasant feelings. With the help of that disembodied British voice from my meditation app, I acknowledged my anxiety and put it in perspective. Getting a revised manuscript to one’s editor is not a life-or-death problem after all. I know that, but the knot in my stomach doesn’t seem to. Rather than letting myself sink into the quicksand of nervousness, I decided to take a cue from the season and become a student. I’m going to learn from other writers about how they approach their craft (and, I hope, learn something to help me get through the next few weeks). So, I’m dedicating this week to going back to school.  Tomorrow morning, I’ll get a lesson in political thrillers from Rick Pullen. In the evening, I’ll be attending fellow Miss Demeanor and USA Today bestselling author Cate Holahan’s book launch for Lies She Told. (If you’re going to be in New York on Tuesday, September 12th, I’ll see you at the Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street at 6:30 pm!) Wednesday morning, I’ll pass on what I learned from Cate about how she comes up with her spellbinding psychological thrillers. Thursday, I’ve got a tutorial with Daphne-Award winning writer S.B. Woodson. On Friday, I’m attending a master class taught by my fellow Miss Demeanors about how to work through the anxiety that comes with writing.  … gotta run. I hear my tea kettle.     

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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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Learning From Imaginary People

At its best, a novel can be a masterclass on life. My favorite books have taught me about myself. More importantly, they’ve allowed me to see myself in others and recognize others in me. They’ve exposed my limited experience and asinine assumptions, and have challenged me to learn more, listen more, and become better.  Most writers I’ve met feel similarly. Often, such feelings are the source of our deep love for story telling. So, my question this week to the MissDemeanors is What Life Lessons Have You Learned From Fiction? Here are our answers.  Cate: At around age eight, Harriet The Spy helped clarify my then budding ambition to become a writer. I pretty much thought Harriet was me with a less well-guarded notebook. Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield reflected my own teenage angst and frustration with the adult world, and it made me realize that getting through life requires acceptance and change. You can’t fight everything without going nuts. Thanks J.D. Salinger. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon (all of which I read in high school) helped me develop a broader sense of empathy and gave me a sensitivity to other female experiences in America. This was particularly important for me at the time as I was developing my own cultural identity, trying to determine what it meant to be biracial in America and what experiences I could and could not connect with given that my black heritage is often belied by my appearance. Recently, Margaret Atwood’s fiction has served as an reminder to remain aware of the greater political landscape in which I live. Bouncing along in my self-absorbed bubble may be bliss, but it also makes finding myself in a dystopia a hell of a lot more likely. Paula: Emerson’s essays taught me to think, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales taught me to dream, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn taught me to laugh no matter what. Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught me that people are funny and tragic and generous and terrible and evil and noble and true. Mysteries taught me plot and red herrings; romance taught me meet cutes and happy endings. But I learn just as much writing as I do reading, especially about myself. Tell a story well and you can’t help but reveal yourself, warts and all. I just got my notes back from my editor on my new novel and I was so worried about the plot, but he said the plot was fine, though the relationship between the heroine and the hero needed work. Now that really is the story of my life. Robin: Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen and Steve Martin taught me to embrace absurdity. Joan Didion’s Hot Flashes warned me about what laid in store (spoiler: she was right, “flash” is a misnomer). Dean Koontz taught me that humans can be the scariest monsters. James Herriot made me want to be a veterinarian when I was 10 yrs old, until the vet treating my family’s dog invited me watch a surgery and I fainted. I second Paula’s comment – I learn more about myself by writing fiction. What I’m willing to say and what I’m not, how much better my work is when the words make me uncomfortable. I’m writing a YA thriller at the moment and I cried after finishing the first draft of more than one scene. Tracee: Reading Tolstoy made me a lifelong Russophile, Dickens secured my love of history. Mysteries taught me plot and clues and red herrings (which also apply to real life) and thrillers made me realize that I am not a thrill seeker in any way. Anything I’ve ever read has taught me that there are many perspectives and situations that are not my own – some I wish were, and some I’m thankful are not. No lesson is perfect, but fiction taught me that sometimes you don’t get a second chance – but sometimes you do. Susan: Dickens taught me that life has insane highs and lows, and you’re always better off if you can try to find some humor in any given situation. I’m reading The Nightingale now and it’s teaching me so much about bravery and the importance of knowing your values and speaking up for them. Anne Tyler, Louise Penny and Richard Russo showed me the value of community. And Agatha Christie. I always wanted to live in St. Mary Mead, and I suspect I chose my village, and Maggie Dove, for that reason. Reading has also shown me that although it’s a big world, most people are motivated by similar concerns, and I try to keep that in mind when I meet new people. Michele: I read Elizabeth George Speare’s historical masterpiece, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, when I was nine and learned that even in the 1600’s people suffered from feeling different, an invaluable lesson for someone on the brink of adolescence. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened my eyes to a world where people lived very differently than in the world in which I was growing up. To Kill A Mockingbird inspired a sense of social justice in me and showed me how one good lawyer can make a difference. Jane Austen taught me that romantic comedy has been alive and well for centuries and how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself. Mark Twain’s lesson was that good humor serves you well in life. Louise Penny has recently touched me and made me appreciate how comforting and inspiring a good story filled with fallible humans can be. Alexia: Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Drew taught me that girls could have adventures, too. 

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Distraction or Inspiration?

Years ago I met Dean Koontz at one of his book signings. He was and remains one of my literary heroes. As a fledgling thriller author I had a burning question for him. “Do you listen to music when you write?” He looked startled and fixed his darker-than-dark eyes on me. “Wow,” he said. “No one has ever asked me that.” The answer was yes. In fact, he chose a single album per manuscript and played it repeatedly as he wrote. It became the rhythm of the book. For example, when he wrote Sole Survivor, he told me, the accompanying soundtrack was Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” I listened to that album when I read Sole Survivor to see if I could match songs to passages. It doesn’t work that way, of course. Writing a book takes heck of lot longer than reading one. But I’ve listened to music while I write ever since. These days, it’s my iTunes library on shuffle unless I need an extra push to inspire a darker mood than my eclectic pop/jazz/dance/country/80’s/R&B/insert-genre-here tastes run. At such times, I listen to movie scores. Thrillers, of course.  So, my fellow Miss Demeanors, what do you listen to while you write? Cate: I try to listen to music the puts me in the mood of my characters at various points. For my third book, Lies She Told, this was my playlist: All That She Wants: Ace of BaseBack Door Man: The DoorsWhat Kind of Man: Florence and The MachineFire: Bruce SpringsteenEverybody’s Got The Right To Love: The SupremesWerewolf: Fiona AppleJanie’s Got A Gun: AerosmithYou Know I’m No Good: Amy WinehouseSamson: Regina SpektorI Told You I Was Mean: Elle KingFast as You Can: Fiona AppleYouth: DaughterStone Cold Crazy: QueenWith A Little Help From My Friends: Joe CockerPsycho Killer: Talking Heads Tracee: Great questions Robin! I definitely listen to music! I have a long playlist that is background music, often played so low it is barely audible. What I find interesting is that I usually don’t notice it, but if I accidentally hit shuffle and the songs are in the ‘wrong’ order then it’s a distraction. When I really need to focus I listen to the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. Otherwise, my playlist is eclectic: Mumford and Sons, U2, Imagine Dragons, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Carrie Underwood, Eagles, Adele, Coldplay, and much more… including a recent addition. k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. That one I still turn up and listen to full throttle. Paula: I have my playlists organized by genre/emotion/audience: romance, country, dance, creativity, meditation, happiness, poignancy, sweet dreams, etc., and for my bad days, f–k you. Note: For whatever reason, this f–k you playlist is the one my fellow writers most often request that I share with them. Go figure.I play whichever playlist suits the scene I’m writing–and if it’s something special, I just create a new playlist. When I’m stuck, I play my OM playlist, which is a combination of kirtan, gregorian chants, and classical music. That always gets me either to the computer or to the yoga mat…and then to the computer. Susan: I can’t listen to anything. I need complete (musical) silence to write. It doesn’t bother me if my neighbors’ are doing construction, but put on Sibelius and my mind goes dead. Alexia: I can’t listen to music while I write. I end up enjoying the music too much and paying more attention to it than to my writing. Mendelssohn is the one exception. I can write with Mendelssohn playing quietly. Usually, I either write in silence or with a quiet buzz of human voices running in the background like white noise. Michele: Put me under the column of writers who don’t/can’t listen to music while I write. I find I am so deeply and sometimes unconsciously influenced emotionally by music that it affects my writing in unintended ways. I like either total silence or the sounds of nature (birds, waves, wind, etc.). I’ve learned I love to write outdoors. It’s not that I don’t love music. Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli can make me weep, even though I can’t understand the lyrics. Dave Matthews gets me out of my seat. Simon and Garfunkel have been favorites since I was a kid and bring up lots of memories. I walked down the aisle to Scarborough Fair. I love Irish music. Harps kill me. Piano and violin move me. But all of these reactions to music tend to muddle what I’m writing. I must say I am fascinated by how my fellow Miss Demeanors intentionally use music to set their moods. I may try it.I am writing this while my daughter’s two kittens are practically sitting on my keyboard, purring like a feline orchestra. My mood is definitely influenced. I want to read a cozy. How about you, dear reader? Do you listen to music while you write?  

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The Readers in My Head

I write for me. But editing that way would be too selfish.  At night, when I pour over whatever I penned earlier in the day, I try to wrest myself from my characters’ heads and my own mind and place myself in the heads of three people: my dad, my closest friend from elementary school, and my agent. Each person is very different. And, if I can please these imagined readers, I feel good about continuing my story.  My father is the critic. A sixty-six-year-old, soon-to-be retired accountant, my father scrutinizes stories like a balance sheet, searching for mistakes and plot failings. He wants to point out that something didn’t make sense or that a character’s actions were “unbelievable.” He refuses to allow well-crafted sentences to seduce him into an easy suspension of disbelief. Reading with my father in mind forces me to constantly ask myself whether or not I’ve done enough work to make my characters’ actions natural. If my fiction doesn’t feel truthful, my dad’s voice will accuse me of lying with all the venom of a parent thinking of a punishment for breaking curfew. I’ll need to go back to the drawing board.  My closest friend from elementary school is probably the person in this world most similar to me. She reads often. She likes stories. She enjoys being entertained. However, she’s a super busy working mother with a ton of responsibility. She doesn’t have time for tales that don’t keep the pages turning. If my story is not exciting and the characters are not compelling, she’s going to put it down–even though it was written by her best friend. There are just too many other pressing things demanding her attention. When I’m editing, I imagine her reading my book after putting the children to sleep. Does she place it on the nightstand because she’s tired or can she not help herself even though she knows her kids will wake up early the next morning and she’ll have to get them all ready for camp before heading to the office? If I can still have her imagined attention, then I’m telling an exciting story.  My agent is the seasoned professional. She’s read so many thrillers that few plots seem original and few stories aren’t predictable. She is my barometer for genre aficionados. If I can surprise her with a twist–or at least delay the inevitable guessing until the third act–then I may have something that will please serious mystery readers.  If, in my head, I’ve kept these three people interested in my story, then I’ve done a good job writing something that I can take pride in. If not, I need to write something better the next day when I’m back to being me.   

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Turning Myself In, Getting The Word Out

I flip back the calendar page. I’m late with these things. For me, the month does not officially change until the Monday following the first. Already, August is marked. A circle surrounds the box for the ninth. Scrawled inside in my ever-evolving shorthand are two words: “Launch day.”  My second book, The Widower’s Wife, comes out Tuesday.  For me, a book launch is a painful metamorphosis. I am someone who hides out for hours in the sparsely decorated office above the garage, hunched over a laptop, listening to the wind beyond the window and the voices in my head whispering of mysteries and murders. Now, I must transform into an author who talks about her book, blogs about her book. Sells her book.  Certainly, I’m proud of my new thriller. But I was raised, like most people, not to brag or grandstand. If you do something you’re happy with, be humble, don’t say, “look at me and what I did. Have you seen the reviews!!!??? Check it out.  Buy it now!”  Yet, if you’re an author, that’s part of the job description. You can be, perhaps, a bit more subtle. But you have to get the word out about your work. There are radio interviews, blog tours, visits to book clubs, conferences and, if you’re lucky (read: famous), a publisher-paid-for bookstore tour. If you don’t do these things, you run the risk of being labeled a “writer”–not an author. Someone who fells trees in the forest and is happy to have no one hear the sounds.  So, how do you get the word out? Well, blogs are one way. There are different opinions on how often to blog. Daily seems to be the minimum. Search Engines check for fresh content. And, while hacking Google’s search algorithm is akin to cracking MIT’s time-lock puzzle, everyone knows that stale web sites tend to drop in the results.  But how do you write and still have time to get the word out? One way is to team up with other writers and divide up the work. Missdemeanors is a group of great women writers all seeking to share personal anecdotes and tips on the writing process, publishing and the writing life. We switch off weeks so that no single person has the burden of finishing her latest novel and keeping a daily blog up-to-date.  I am happy to be included in this bunch. And, so, I’m turning myself in and getting the word out:  My name is Cate Holahan. I write mysteries, invent murders and imagine all sorts of twisted scenarios. And if those are misdemeanors, well, guilty as charged.   

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