The Series. Where to start?

 Do you start at the beginning?  As a mystery writer I am also a mystery reader. Many (most?) are series. I’m always looking for a new book, new writer, new series….. but that is where the dilemma starts. Do I read the current one? Or do I go back to the beginning and start there? I remember discovering Michael Connelly (apparently, I had been living on Mars in an isolated space station, that’s the only explanation for joining the party late).  There were simply too many…. I jumped in at the current point and since then have dipped back in time whenever the mood strikes. I’ve liked picking up Harry Bosch and Micky Haller at various points in their lives, skipping forward and backward, knowing what was coming or learning what got them there. When I latched onto Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone I started with A is for Alibi and went from there (maybe it was the alphabet that made me feel obligated to march in lock step). As a writer I like to see how the characters have changed over time, how the writing had changed. Do the characters age a year between the annual publication dates (as do Louise Penny’s) or do they remain in an artificial era? PI Kinsey Millhone stays fixed in the 1970s whereas Martha Grimes’s Inspector Richard Jury works has moved forward in time, trusting that the reader will ignore the fact that he was a child in the Second World War (it works for me, but I was raised on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot who was old during the First World War and kept on solving crimes well after the second war ended. Always old, never precisely older.). What makes series so successful? The ability to return to the comfort of a character who is an old friend? I think that’s what I look forward to the most.

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Final Edits. The End. (Almost.)

 Today I’m starting on final edits for A Well-Timed Murder, the second in the Agnes Lüthi mystery series. I have a couple main objectives: trimming and accelerating. There will likely be a few other changes to specific words, responses to my editor’s questions or requests for clarifications and other minor fiddling. I like this phase of writing when my mind is already on another book and the tasks are more concrete. That’s not to say creativity isn’t at the heart of all edits – what to trim isn’t about cutting every 5th word, it’s about cutting precisely the right words. Accelerating the story at a specific point feels like surgery. Don’t get carried away and add complications, try to bring all of the existing ones together. It’s a finite problem. These final edits also take place weeks after the last time I’ve looked at the manuscript and time helps. I’ll try to bring a fresh eye to the project while remembering that this is the end…. The finish line is in sight and everything I do should be about making it better and tighter…. All of the new ideas that plague a writer’s mind belong in the next book. What’s your experience of final edits? Panic or pleasure? 

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Where are you from?

Inspired by my post yesterday in which I discussed where I was from, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors about where they came from and how it’s influenced their writing. I got a lot of wonderful responses: Alexia: “Where are you from?” is a loaded question for a Southerner. You have to decide if someone’s asking “Where are you from right now?”, “Where were you born?”, or “Where are your people from?” You have to consider how far below the Mason-Dixon line you’re located when the speaker asks you that question to decipher what they really mean.Above the Mason-Dixon Line: “I’m from Lake Forest, Illinois. I moved up from Texas a few months ago.” I haven’t been here long enough to write about it but it’s the mid-west version of the English villages I love to read about so I will, eventually.Below the Mason-Dixon Line but north of the Carolinas: “I was born in Virginia but grew up in Maryland.” Further conversation narrows “Virginia” to “Fredericksburg” (the hospital)/”Dahlgren” (the house) and “Maryland” to “Clinton near Andrews Air Force Base, just across the bridge from Alexandria, about 15 miles south of DC.” I’ve recently added, “near National Harbor” to Clinton’s description because the harbor’s now a well-known landmark but, when I grew up there, National Harbor was nothing but trees. My protagonist, Gethsemane Brown, is from Virginia and her family still lives there.From North Carolina down to Florida and as far west as Texas: ”  My mother’s family’s from South Carolina, we traced them back to the 1870 census. They were adults then so they were there sometime before 1870. Mom grew up in Dillon [Insert surnames of several generations of relatives.] and her sister still lives in Columbia. [Insert surnames of in-laws.] I went to college up north [mention Vassar–it’s not a Southern school but it dates back to the 1800s so some have heard of it], and I went to medical school at what used to be Medical College of Pennsylvania but now it’s Drexel and I did my residency at University of South Carolina and my first job was at Fort Jackson and I lived in Columbia for 13 years and I still have a house there.” An inquiry about my father’s people usually follows, to which I reply, “Dad’s from Oklahoma by way of Alabama and Mississippi.” Depending on who’s asking, I may add, “The story goes they left Mississippi late at night a step ahead of the Klan.” Gethsemane’s mother grew up on a farm in the rural South.(BTW, this really is how you answer a Southerner who asks “Where are you from?” They want to know if they know any of your “people” or if you might be related. So don’t speak ill of any third parties to anyone you’ve just met. There’s a chance you’re connected. The interim pastor at my church in Lake Forest grew up about 20 miles from where I grew up and is friends with the husband of a woman I met at a retreat center in South Carolina and I met a couple at a Lake Forest Library focus group whose brother-in-law worked with my parents in Virginia. Consider yourself warned.) Tracee: I’m with Alexia on this answer. My mother’s family were in Arkansas pre-statehood and if I’m anywhere in that region (meaning contiguous states) then the Snoddy/Taylor family lines get discussed. I’ve also had people far away from that patch of land say, Oh, your mother is from Arkansas and then we discuss the family tree and realize we share a great great great grandfather. The point – people in the South have done their genealogical research and can cite it from memory. I had the same experience while living in Europe. When traveling in Vienna with my soon-to-be mother-in-law she asked me where my family was from. She knew my parents and where they lived…. but we were in a taxi on the way to drinks at the home of her old friends, so this was different. I gave her the quick spiel – Huguenots who immigrated to England then to the Carolinas pre revolution, then onto Arkansas and other parts of the South on my mother’s side, Germans who came to Illinois and then Missouri on my father’s. Lo and behold shortly after our arrival my host asked where I was from and my mother-in-law gave a concise though detailed answer. People like details, at least in certain places! Robin: Wow, and I thought my answer might be complicated. Hat tip to Alexia 😉 My family moved around a lot for the first few years of my life. Also, given my background as a cyber criminologist I’m loathe to publicly answer a question that’s a typical security question :). So I’ll default to where I’ve spent the most time which is the San Francisco Bay Area. I love San Francisco and I absolutely set most stories there unless there’s a compelling reason *not* to. On the one hand, as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, it’s relatable. On the other, it’s constantly changing with so many multicultural nuances to its history, neighborhoods and geography that it makes it appealing to treat it almost like a human character. It’s also fun to challenge myself to showcase parts of the City that people don’t typically write about.  Cate: I am from New Jersey. I thought I would escape for college, and then went to University in NJ. I thought I would escape as an adult–and I lived in NYC for a few years–but then moved back to NJ. I have since realized that, as much as I might romanticize other places and enjoy traveling, I love NJ. It’s home. Paula: My dad was in the army, and I went to 12 schools in 11 years, and lived in so many places I have a hard time recalling them all, so I’m from everywhere and nowhere. I tend to think of home as wherever my family is, and now that my family is scattered from California to Las Vegas to Massachusetts to Switzerland, home is a moving target. But I’ve lived in the little cottage on the lake here in New England now for a dozen years, far longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. So it’s as close to home as I’m ever going to get. Michele: Loving my fellow Miss Demeanors responses to this question. I was born at the Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Boston, delivered by Dr. Eugene McDonough, Sr. Seventeen years later, I had my admissions physical for my entrance into the Faulkner Hospital School of Nursing in the same room I was born in (the maternity ward had closed and was replaced by an employee health clinic) done by Dr. Eugene McDonough, JR.! In the meantime, I had lived in West Hartford, Connecticut, so it felt a little circular. The stand alone book I have been working on is set in – Jamaica Plain, Boston. I didn’t plan returning to my birth place. My character just found herself there, which has revived in me a keen interest in Jamaica Plain. Home for me must always be near the ocean. Even as a kid, I thought I would suffocate living in the Connecticut River Valley.

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Writing historical characters

Please welcome the very fabulous Greer Macallister to our Miss Demeanors blog.  Greer is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about real-life 19th-century detective/bad-ass Kate Warne, was an Indie Next pick for April 2017 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.”   Today, Greer’s discussing how she went about transforming a real-life detective into a fictional one.    When I first learned the name of the first woman detective on record – Kate Warne – I was excited. She began work as a Pinkerton operative in Chicago in 1856, solving cases and fighting crime more than 50 years before police departments started hiring women as detectives. I couldn’t fathom why I’d never heard of her. As soon as I started researching Kate, I figured out one key reason: there isn’t all that much to say. The known facts about Kate Warne’s life and career barely fill a page. The same sparse details show up over and over again – walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office in August 1856, 23-year-old widow, eventually promoted to head up a Bureau of Female Detectives within the Pinkerton Agency and, by the way, helped save Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration. The information on the internet is evocative, yes, but unsatisfying. I wanted more. The Pinkerton Agency’s archives are at the Library of Congress, only a few miles from my house. I figured I’d be able to delve deep and read up on all Kate’s cases, the things no one had written about yet, and spin that straw into gold. Instead, I was able to read every single document in the archives that mentioned Kate Warne and still make it home for dinner. If I were a biographer, this would have shut me down immediately. Luckily, I write fiction. The holes in Kate’s story that frustrate nonfiction writers created the perfect opportunity for a historical novelist. If Kate’s diaries or letters had survived to the present day, my task would have been to mimic her voice; but because there are none, her voice was something I got to create. I was able to give her the personality I know she must have had to do the things she did. She was bold enough to answer a newspaper ad hiring detectives at a time where women rarely worked outside the home. In my version of the story, she takes this step out of desperation – a penniless widow who has already tried all the “appropriate” ways to keep a roof over her head and food on her table has little choice but to resort to something inappropriate. The questions flew thick and fast. How did the men of the Pinkerton Agency react to a woman in their midst? How did it feel to infiltrate criminal circles in pre-Civil War Chicago, within arm’s reach of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers? How was Kate able to mimic a Southern accent well enough to fool real Southerners when she was supposedly born in New York? Every gap was an invitation. Though I’ve been an avid reader of detective fiction since college, this was my first time shaping a novel around a detective, and the temptation to write about case after case was overwhelming. But I strongly believe the novelist’s first loyalty is to the reader. I needed to do everything I could to make the book compelling but not breathless, detailed but not flabby, satisfying but not pat. In the end, my goal was to combine what was available in the historical record with fictional narrative to make a detective’s life come alive on the page. For Kate’s sake, I hope I succeeded.    

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Waiting…..

I am in a waiting phase of my career. I’ve spent five years researching and writing a book, which I have turned over to my fabulous agent. She has said very flattering things about it, and now it is all in her hands. All I can really do is wait and hope and pray and drink. And talk to my dogs. Not necessarily in that order.  Of course I am incapable of sitting around doing nothing, so for me, the waiting period is actually a very productive time. For one thing, I’m reading a lot. I’m gorging myself on all sorts of random books. I just started reading (and finished reading) Mary Higgins Clark’s Where are the Children? That’s a master class in suspense right there. I also just read Allison Pataki’s book about Benedict Arnold. The reading takes me outside of my anxieties and reminds of why I love to do this in the first place. I’m also jotting down ideas. Not big things, because there’s no point in writing a whole new thing until I know where I am with this thing. But mind is percolating with strange thoughts, and some of them I’m turning into short stories. I love writing stories because you can explore all sorts of characters that might wind up in later books.    Then, I’m organizing my office. I have years worth of strange scraps of information tacked on the wall. I know the astrological sign for about 20 characters. Perhaps I should take that down and put it into a folder. There are books I don’t need anymore that I can give to the Attic Sale, and books that I forgot I had, that I now have time to read.                                                              Of course I am also checking my phone, and I can report that Democratic National Committee has called me 5 times. I respect Tom Perez, but unless he plans to sell my book, I don’t want to hear from him.  How about you? What are your strategies for waiting?  

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The Creative Process

A couple weeks ago, I was on a panel of authors at my alma mater discussing The Creative Process. At first, I wasn’t sure the panelists would have anything in common. One was a screenwriter, another an expert in Russian literature, another had a bestseller about Steve Jobs and yet another wrote American literature. And then there was me: the thriller writer. But, it turned out that our creative process all involved research and a degree of musing about the world–although we did it in different ways. I am pretty sure I was the only panelist that regularly uses excel spreadsheets to plot out the action in my story, the character arcs, and play-by-plays of integral scenes before I start writing.  So, I asked my fellow MissDemeanors. What is an integral part of your creative process. Here’s what they said: “I love brainstorming. In fact, part of why I’ve enjoyed nanowrimo so much the last few years is because it feels like a month of br ainstorming. I write down notes about characters, themes, words they might like, scenes that might be good. I don’t edit myself. Then, when I’ve filled an entire notebook, which usually takes about a month, I have enough material to begin writing.” –Susan “I hate to admit this but, as a life-long insomniac, an integral part of my creative process is to use the long sleepless hours in the middle of the night to think about plot lines and characters and how they might react to twists. Those hours between 2:00  and 4:00 are when reality stares me right in the eye. Sometimes I exhaust myself into a deep sleep and very often I come up with new ideas that would never occur to me during my waking hours.”Michele “For me the creative process has to be a balance between planning (what do I need for the story in specific terms, what does the story arc need) and free form thinking. That means time at the desk and time doing something else which lets my mind roam (yard work is a help here). Creative does mean just that…. at the same time process, well, means steps, piece by piece something coming together. It’s the blend that matters!” –Tracee “Before I begin actually writing each story I draw a mind map with my protagonist at the center. Then I add villains, sidekicks and secondary characters with descriptions of what each one wants and where desires intersect to trip each other up. It’s an exercise that lets me visualize logical expectations of both characters and readers, remove cliches or turn them on their heads, and explore opportunities for twists. The final map becomes a touchstone but I don’t let it lock me in as I write. I find that my characters sometimes surprise me so I stay open to that possibility and have as much fun with it as possible.”–Robin “For me, it’s a combination of daydreaming and research. My research I mostly mean reading. So it doesn’t really seem like research. This is the fun part–daydreaming and reading and thinking about characters. I often have an idea for an opening scene, at least what will be the opening scene of the working draft, and I write that just to get it down, as a way into the story. I make nonsensical notes in a big sketchbook and when I filled that, I sit down with that material and jot down notes for scenes on index cards. When I have about 60 index cards, I start writing in earnest.” –Paula

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Conferences–Worth it?

 I am writing this blog when I should be booking a ticket to Nashville. I’ve already signed up for Killer Nashville, you see, and–though I’ve paid my conference fee and for my hotel–I have yet to book a flight. I will. I’m hemming and hawing about airline prices and not yet wanting to part with the money in my savings account.  Conferences can empty wallet. I’ve yet to attend one that didn’t ultimately set me back a grand with all the travel expenses and registration fees–not to mention the cost of promotional swag. So, a natural question is, are they worth it?  I think conferences help build an author’s brand and enable writers to connect with other novelists, both of which can sell books. Though I think anyone that believes he or she will go to a conference and see a resulting spike in his or her Amazon ranking will be ultimately disappointed. Conferences are largely attended by other writers. And, though writers buy and read lots of books, they are there to sell their own work–not to spend a bunch of money on their friends’ novels. What’s more important, though, is that writers talk about other writers and, ultimately, will read and promote authors whom they respect. This community promotion can help legitimize a new author’s career and get mid-list authors noticed. Successful writers, in my experience, are very generous with their time and platforms, perhaps because they were once in a similar situation on the mid-list or struggling to get published. (I also believe that people who spend a great deal of time imagining the feelings of others in various situations might be trained to be more empathetic than the average Joe. Though, this is a theory based entirely on supposition).  Conferences also give out awards recognizing stellar books, which can be helpful for sales. And, since writers typically vote for the winning titles, it can be difficult for a novice to get noticed for such recognition if he or she doesn’t have other authors–likely met at conferences and book signings and panels–who are aware of his or her work.  So, I guess that means I should go on Travelocity.     

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What's next?

All the writers I know are finishing a book, thinking about their next one and likely marketing another. The first book is ‘the’ book. The idea that just wouldn’t stay off the page. The next one (or 3 or 30) is a different story. I asked my fellow MissDemeanors how they approach that ‘next project’ question and here’s what I learned: Paula:  It depends on where you are in your career. I advise my clients to write the project they are most passionate about that also makes the most sense strategically. When it comes to my own writing, I try to follow my own advice! Michele:  I’m trying to follow the advice of my agent! I have been living with a new character who is demanding that her story be told and I want to tell it. I’ve been writing it and rewriting it until I feel like I am in her bone marrow. But I am also trying to temper my extreme engagement with Olivia with a sense about how her story will reach people, which means being market savvy. Like it or not, that’s part of the reality. Susan:  I think (or hope) that my next project is a sequel, so that makes things sort of simple. However, I always find myself working on a short story whenever I finish up a novel. It’s a way to explore ideas and figure out if there’s something to them. And of course, I always ask Paula! Robin:  My fiction projects usually start with real-life situations (cyber threats and attacks) that haunt me. Then I create a main character who’s often an amalgam of relevant perspectives and with a reason for that character to be the messenger. The rest of the story flows from the supporting cast. And a chat or several with Paula, of course 🙂 First drafts defy my initial plot notes every time and I don’t fight it. The characters take me in directions I didn’t expect as the story develops around them. I have a lot of fun with it. Cate: I write standalone novels so I am always grappling with what’s next. Fortunately, I feel as though another idea is always percolating. I am finishing up my fourth book and have tentative outlines for three more projects.  Books, both contemporary and classic, are large sources of inspiration for me, as is music. Sometimes I hear a song and combine it with images in my life and stories that I’ve heard and I get another idea. I also have woken up from dreams with an entire three act story (my subconscious is very busy).  I can’t wait to read ALL of your ‘nexts’! Thanks for sharing.

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It's still May. Short story month.

 I recently spoke to a middle school class in Athens, Tennessee and was impressed by their thoughts on writing, what they were writing and how excited they were about the entire process from inspiration to words on paper to editing (which they informed me was the hardest and most important part!). In this class, and when I meet children or young adults with their parents, one of the inevitable questions is what should I do if I want to be a writer? That’s a loaded question but one of the things I usually mention is name recognition through competitions. (After all, practice and potential resume building aren’t bad for anyone.) Inevitable we talk about short story competitions. Why? There are quite a few of them. And while writing a short story isn’t easier than writing a full length novel it is ‘shorter,’ which hopefully translates into a shorter timeline for completion. While name recognition for a contest winner or short story publication is a great thing, there are other wonderful reasons to tackle the short story. Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool in development of writing craft. Short stories may be short but they have a beginning, middle and end. Their length makes it all the more critical to distill all knowledge into an abbreviated word count. A good short story will always be tight and succinct (whereas a novel can legitimately be lengthy). That leads to the part that the middle schoolers felt was the hardest and most important – editing. A masterful short story is a well edited story. This doesn’t mean that a short story edits out theme or twists or experimentation with POV or any other of the other things that writers use in full length novels. The short story provides space for everything, just judiciously. A theme is the heart of any story! Recently I asked a short story writer what was their biggest piece of advice. The answer: start the story very near the end. Are you a short story writer? Any advice? Any favorites? 

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In Jane Austen territory

This morning I woke up to this view. If it looks a little bit familiar, it may be because all of us who’ve read Pride and Prejudice have been nurtured by Austen’s descriptions of the beautiful landscape of the South Downs.  Isn’t this glorious?                                       If you go outside, and take a walk (which I did!) you come to a forest, or a weald. Strolling through, I could just imagine Mr. Darcy walking toward me.     A few miles away, you come to a rambling old manor house. Near the manor house is a church similar to the one Jane Austen attended. Now I want to go back and read her books!  

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