If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book next year, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com

Our March author interviews: Karen Pullen (3/1), Lowcountry Crime authors: Tina Whittle, Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant, and James M. Jackson (3/8), Annette Dashofy (3/15), Edith Maxwell (3/22) and Barb Ross (3/29).

Saturday Guest Bloggers in March: Maris Soule (3/4), and Virginia Mackey (3/11). WWK Saturday bloggers write on 3/18--Margaret S. Hamilton and on 3/25--Kait Carson.

Julie Tollefson won the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter's Holton Award for best unpublished manuscript (member category) for her work in progress, In The Shadows. Big news for a new year. Congratulations, Julie.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Warren Bull's new Lincoln mystery, Abraham Lincoln In Court & Campaign has been released. Look for the Kindle version on February 3.

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Once a Kappa" was published as a finalist in the Southern Writer's Magazine annual short story contest issue. Mysterical-E published her "Double Crust Corpse" in the Fall 2016 issue. "Baby Killer" will appear in the 2017 solar eclipse anthology Day of the Dark to be published this summer prior to the eclipse in August.

Linda Rodriquez has two pending book publications. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel will be released by Scapegoat Press on November 29th. Every Family Doubt, the fourth Skeet Bannion mystery, is scheduled for release on June, 13, 2017. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Linda here in June!

Cross Genre Publications anthology, Hidden Youth, will contain Warren Bull's "The Girl, The Devil, and The Coal Mine." The anthology will be released in late November 2016. The We've Been Trumped anthology released by Dark House Press on September 28th contains Warren Bull's "The Wall" short story and KM Rockwood's "A Phone Call to the White House." KM writes under the name Pat Anne Sirs for this volume.

James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for pre-order.


Friday, March 24, 2017

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes: A Review by Warren Bull

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes: A Review by Warren Bull
Image from fullskyart.com

In a Lonely Place was published in 1947.  In 1949 it was made into a noir film staring Humphrey Bogart, which is considered by many to be a classic even though the film deviated considerably from the novel.

In a Lonely Place was one of the first novels told from the point-of-view of the criminal. In my opinion it is successful in conveying the story from that point-of view.  It is chilling without being gory. None of the actual murders were described as they happened. But the book maintains an atmosphere of menace. I am reminded of the shower scene in the movie Psycho. In that scene the viewer never sees the knife make contact with the victim, but it is shocking nonetheless.

By the way, if you are interested in the development of crime fiction over time, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, another excellent work from a murderer’s point of view, was published in 1952. 
Dortohy B. Hughes gives a believable account of the criminal’s thoughts and emotions. As a reader I felt the drive the criminal feels toward committing murder. I did not find the killer likeable, but I could understand, at least at a sminimal level, the actions that he took.

This is not a who-done-it. It is more of a how-are-they-going-to-catch-him book. It is very skillfully written. The tension builds throughout. If you want to understand how to write suspense, this would be a good book to study. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Ants Come Marching

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah,
The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah,
The little one stops to suck his thumb,
And they all go marching down in the ground
To get out of the rain, Boom! Boom! Boom!

The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah,
The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah,
 The little one stops to tie his shoe,
And they all go marching down in the ground
To get out of the rain, Boom! Boom! Boom!

And the song goes on and on although these weren’t the exact words I remember from when my Cub Scouts and later my Girl Scouts sang it. The last two lines have changed.
These are 10 or more times larger than my ants.

Ants have invaded my kitchen – little teeny, teeny ants I can barely see. They shouldn’t be here now because there is snow on the ground. However, a few weeks ago it warmed up, and maybe they have a home in the crawl space under my kitchen. I don’t know, but I even found them in my microwave where those died, but not the tiny ones behind the clock on the microwave that look like little pieces of black thread. And even though I keep washing my counter tops and spray them with window cleaner, they keep returning.

I’ll worry about taking care of those little critters later. What I want to write about today are ants, a fascinating insect. I first got interested in them when what looked like termites outside our house years ago. I looked them up to see if they were termites and found out they were a type of ant. That morning I spent an hour or more reading all about them in volume one of The World Book Encyclopedia.  And before I wrote this article I read it again.

Every year I get ants in my house. It’s an old house and even though it’s been remodeled, these little critters still have a way to get in. Just as annoying is when they build nests in my flower gardens. Still ants are interesting in that they have communities much as people do. Well, we don’t live underground, but they have a social order and their communities are organized. Each community may be as small as a dozen or so, or hundreds or thousands of ants. Each colony has one or several queens. I imagine it depends on the size of the colony. The queen’s job is to lay eggs. Most of the ants are workers, and most of those workers are females, too.  The workers build the nest, search for food and fight off enemies. The male’s job?  It’s only to mate with the queen. What a life for him! Although not so much, really because after he mates with the queen he soon dies. I guess I’d rather be a worker if I were an ant.

There are so many different kinds of ants. Army ants, for instance, live by hunting other insects. Some kinds of army ants march across the land in enormous swarms eating most of the insects they meet. Some ants are slave makers invading other ant nests and steal the young which they raise as slaves.  Harvester ants gather seeds and store them in their nests, while dairying ants keep insects that give off a sweet liquid when the ants milk them. There are fungus growing ants that carry pieces of leaves to their nest to fertilize gardens of fungus. Weaver ants make nests from leaves. Several ants hold two leaves together while others carry silk-spinning larvae (developing ants) across the edge.

Ants live everywhere on land except in very cold areas. There are at least ten thousand different kinds of ants and probably more. In spite of their small size, they are stronger than one would imagine. Some can lift objects ten times the size of their bodies. 

Ants use their antennae to communicate by smelling one another to see if they’re nest mates. They are organs of touch, taste, hearing and smell.

In 1994, I ordered the book Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson, who had been interested in ants since he was a child. It was a fascinating book and someday, I hope to read it again. He won a lot of praise for that book. If you want to learn more about ants, I highly recommend reading Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson. It was more than just a book about ants, but his life story of how he became a University Professor at Harvard, won two Pulitzer prizes, and worked as a scientist who has written more books than just this one.

On the back cover – “One of the greatest scientific autobiographies ever written. An extraordinary self-analysis of a scientist and what makes up his emotional and intellectual psychic, it is at once passionate, honest, and beautifully written.” Alan Lightman, author or Einstein’s Dreams

What do you know about ants?  Do you ever have problems with ants?
Are there any other insects you find interesting?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Interview With Edith Maxwell

by Grace Topping

Whether writing under the name of Edith Maxwell, Maddie Day, or Tace Baker, Edith writes a terrific book, or two, or three each year that will thoroughly entertain you. This prolific writer has a reputation for hard work and a commitment to her writing career that is truly inspirational. She is currently working on four separate mystery series. When once asked how she found inspiration, she replied, “Butt in the chair.”

I had the privilege of meeting Edith at a Malice Domestic Conference and later talking to her at the Fall for the Book Festival, based at George Mason University in Virginia, when she appeared as a guest speaker. She is as delightful in person as her characters are in her multiple books.

Recently, the Malice Domestic board announced that Edith had been nominated for an Agatha award in not one but two categories: Delivering the Truth for Best Historical Mystery and “The Mayor and the Midwife” for Best Short Story. I can’t wait for the end of April to hear the results.

It is a pleasure to welcome Edith Maxwell to Writers Who Kill.

Please tell us a bit about your series. I understand that you have series other than the one you are currently working on.

Edith Maxwell/Maddie Day
First, thanks so much for inviting me over, Grace. What a great set of questions you put together!

As Edith Maxwell, I write the Local Foods Mysteries, which feature organic farmer Cam Flaherty, a group of local foods enthusiasts, and locally sourced murder. It’s set in a fictional small town in Massachusetts near where I live. I also write the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, with Quaker midwife Rose Carroll hearing secrets, catching babies, and solving crimes in my town of Amesbury in 1888.

As Maddie Day, I author the Country Store Mysteries. Robbie Jordan is a chef and carpenter turning out breakfast and lunch in her country store restaurant in lovely southern Indiana, and solving a few murders along the way. Maddie Day is also writing the first book in the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries, which are set on Cape Cod here in Massachusetts.

As Tace Baker, I have two books out in the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries, in which a contemporary Quaker linguistics professor solves crimes in her small coastal Massachusetts town.

You amaze me writing four different mystery series. How many books are you writing each year?

I write three books a year. One series is ending but another is starting, so it evens out!

When starting a new book or series, what do you start with (character, victim, motive)?

For example, in my new, the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries, my editor suggested the book group hook and I suggested Cape Cod. So in a way I’m starting with the setting and the reason a group of village business owners and other notables get together every week. My idea was for them to read one cozy mystery a week (which is fewer than many avid cozy fans accomplish) and then to be drawn into a real-life murder mystery in each of the books in my series. But then I needed a protagonist, so I decided to have Mac Almeida own a bicycle repair and rental shop, in part because I couldn’t think of any other cozies featuring that career. Cape Cod is flat and gorgeous, with many biking/walking trails, so it’s a reasonable occupation.

How do you make the main characters of your series sound different? If we were to interview all four of them at the same time how would they come across?

They sound different because they are different. It just comes with knowing my characters, especially my protagonists. Of course, Rose Carroll, the 1888 Quaker midwife, sounds the most different, with her “thee”s and “thy”s, and I have to be careful that she doesn’t utter language that wasn’t in use at the time.

Do you ever find yourself mixing up your characters—attributing habits or characteristics to another?

I really don’t. They are so clearly distinct people. For example, Robbie Jordan in the Country Store Mysteries is a Californian living in Indiana. She’s a chef and a carpenter, a puzzler and a cyclist, who has been burned badly by love not once but twice. She has a completely different outlook on life than my Local Foods Mysteries farmer Cam Flaherty, an introverted former software engineer who, over the course of five books, finds she’s able to relate to people rather than just vegetables (or code), after all.

Do you have a favorite among your main characters? Or is that too much like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite?

Yes, it is! But I might admire Rose Carroll a little more than my other amateur sleuths. Life is already challenging for a Quaker, because they dress, speak, and act differently in 1888 than most of the population. In addition, Rose is also an independent businesswoman and a forthright as yet single woman not afraid to speak her mind and ask questions to get to the bottom of the mysteries she encounters.

At what point did you feel you had become a successful writer, or have you reached that point yet? Have you had an “I’ve made it” moment?

Gosh. Every time I get a box of ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) or final copies and I hold my own book in my hands, I can barely believe it. By May my “shelfie” will feature twelve traditionally published books, some in as many as three of the possible formats (hardcover, mass-market paperback, large print, and audiobook). Also, when my twice-a-year royalty checks keep going up, or when I bank a check for an advance, that feels pretty good, too, as does being a double Agatha-Award nominee this year. But there’s always room for more success, for more challenges, for more ways to feel that I’ve “made it.”

With series with different publishers, how do you handle conflicting or overlapping deadlines?

I am strict about my calendar, and I am disciplined about my writing, doing my best to work on one series at a time. If two books are due a month apart, I work ahead. This year I had books due in January, February, and June. I wrote the January book last summer, the February book in the fall, and am working on the June book now. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, my scheme blows up sometimes. I might be in the middle of a first draft on series A, and I get copyedits in on series B that are due back in two weeks. I drop the first draft, much as I’d rather stay immersed in it, do the copyedits, and then return. Same if I get proofs in from series C. The more immediate deadline always has to take priority, no matter which publisher it’s for.

It’s the competing release dates that are a little bit of an issue right now. Country Store #3 comes out March 28 written as Maddie Day from Kensington. Quaker Midwife #2 comes out April 8 written as Edith Maxwell from Midnight Ink. Yikes! Both publishers’ publicists set up blog tours that exactly overlap on the same two weeks in April. So I’m writing a heck of a lot of guest posts, and my launch party on April 7 is going to be Edith and Maddie interviewing each other. My local indy bookstore owner thought that would be a fun idea, so I’m going to launch both books together.

Do you ever have moments of panic juggling so many books?

Of course! But lists, calendars, and discipline are holding me together so far. And I always make time for my power walk midday, which some days is also a plotting walk. Exercise clears my brain, keeps me calm, and gets the oxygen circulating.

What is a good writing day for you?

To wake up at 5:30 well rested, get my Internet poking around, blog reading, and Facebook and Twitter posting done before 7, and then to be writing from 7 until 11 or so.  If I’m writing first draft, I don’t let myself leave the desk until I’ve written at least 1500 words, which often turns into more. Then I walk, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon doing promotional and other less creative author work.

Now that you’ve had a number of contracts, what is the most important thing you’ve learned that might help new writers?

Write the best book you can. Keep that butt in the chair and those fingers on the keyboard. Then find your tribe. Join Sisters in Crime or whatever group writers in your genre hang out in. Talk to them. Learn from them. Network your little ass off.

With a busy writing schedule, how do you find time to promote your books? Do you enjoy doing promotion?

I do and I don’t. I don’t want to go around saying, “Buy my book!” But I do want to gently let people know it’s available. So the times between releases are almost more important. I get to know my community of readers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and in person. I run giveaways and fun contests from time to time. I never turn down an invitation to visit a library. I promote my fellow authors and cheer them on. And I blog actively with the other Wicked Cozy Authors, plus once a month each on Killer Characters and with the Midnight Ink authors. By the time I have a release, people already know me (or that’s the goal), and I hope they’ll be as excited by my new book as I am.

What promotional/marketing efforts have paid off, and which ones were wastes of time?

It’s so hard to know what pays off in terms of sales. Certainly a Goodreads giveaway of five ARCs, which I get for free from my publisher, gets a lot of visibility. I just ended one for GRITS, and almost 2000 people signed up. I pay thirteen dollars to send five books in the US, but two thousand people have the book on the Want to Read list.  Does that result in increased sales? I don’t know.

What the most valuable thing you’ve learned from good and maybe not so good reviews?

From the less-than-positive ones, I’ve learned you can’t please everybody. And that’s okay.  And from the glowing ones? That I can make people really, really happy with my stories. And that’s fabulous!

What is the most touching comment you’ve received from a reader?

A fan wrote that she had to sit with a sick relative in the hospital for some time. She said my book got her through several days and helped her escape the pain. That note very much touched me.

You write both historical and contemporary series. Do you find one easier to write than the other?

Certainly the historical series demands a level of research the contemporary series don’t. I have to check all kinds of details about language, train travel, clothing, carriages, heating systems, footwear – you name it! But in terms of the mystery, the storytelling, I don’t find any era easier or harder to write.  It’s still a story about people, their motivations, their loves and hates, and the puzzle of the mystery.

With all the time you spend writing, do you ever have time to read for pleasure? If so, what are you reading now? Do you have a favorite writer?

I do read for pleasure, and read more when I’m on vacation or laid up after a surgery (as I essentially have been since the start of February this year). I couldn’t possibly say who my favorite author is, but I was so happy to h ave time to read Deborah Crombie’s latest and Rhys Bowen’s new WWII novel, and to lose myself in Ingrid Thoft, Fiona Davis, and Ausma Zehanat Khan, all of whom I discovered on the Jungle Red Writers blog.

Describe your favorite place to write.

I have an upstairs office overlooking our quiet street. My office has a rocking chair, a futon couch, and lots of bookcases. I sit on a ball chair and work at a lovely wooden desk made by a local artisan, and my commute is thirty seconds long.

To readers new to your books, which of them would you recommend they start with?

Well, of course I always think that my latest books are my best, so they could start there (see next question). But to begin each series at the beginning, they could start with A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die (Local Foods Mysteries #1), Delivering the Truth (Quaker Midwife Mysteries #1), and Flipped for Murder (Country Store Mysteries #1).

What’s next for your four series? Any books coming out soon?

Yes! As I mentioned earlier, When the Grits Hit the Fan, Country Store #3, comes out March 28 written as Maddie Day. Called to Justice, Quaker Midwife #2, comes out April 8, and Mulch Ado About Murder, Local Foods Mystery #5, releases May 30.

Any new series in the works?

See previous comments about the Cozy Capers Book Group series! The first book will be out sometime in 2018.

Thanks again for having me. I’d love readers to tell me, if they’ve read my books, which is their favorite – and why. And if they haven’t, which series appeals to them most. I’m happy to answer questions all day, too.

Thank you, Edith, for joining us at Writers Who Kill.

To learn more about Edith (and Maddie Day) and her numerous books, visit her at www.edithmaxwell.com. 

Here is a peak at Edith’s (and Maddie’s) upcoming releases.

When the Grits Hit the Fan (A Country Store Mystery) by Maddie Day

Despite the bitter winter in South Lick, Indiana, business is still hot at Robbie Jordan’s restaurant. But when another murder rattles the small town, can Robbie defrost the motives of a cold-blooded killer?

Before she started hosting dinners for Indiana University’s Sociology Department at Pans ‘N Pancakes, Robbie never imagined scholarly meetings could be so hostile. It’s all due to Professor Charles Stilton, who seems to thrive on heated exchanges with his peers and underlings, and tensions flare one night after he disrespects Robbie’s friend, graduate student Lou. So when Robbie and Lou go snowshoeing the next morning and find the contentious academic frozen under ice, police suspect Lou might have killed him after their public tiff. To prove her friend’s innocence, Robbie is absorbing local gossip about Professor Stilton’s past and developing her own thesis on the homicide—even if that means stirring up terrible danger for herself along the way . . .

Called to Justice (A Quaker Midwife Mystery) by Edith Maxwell

When Hannah Breed confides to midwife Rose Carroll that she’s pregnant out of wedlock, Rose promises to help her through the pregnancy and figure out a way to break the news to her family. But that night, amid the noise and revelry of the Independence Day fireworks, Hannah is found shot dead.

After a former slave and fellow Quaker is accused of the murder, Rose delves into the crime, convinced of the man’s innocence. An ill-mannered mill manager, an Irish immigrant, and the victim’s young boyfriend come under suspicion even as Rose’s future with her handsome doctor suitor becomes unsure. Rose continues to deliver babies and listen to secrets, finally focusing in on the culprit only to be threatened herself.

Mulch Ado about Murder (Local Foods Mystery) by Edith Maxwell

It’s been a hot, dry spring in Westbury, Massachusetts. As organic farmer Cam Flaherty waits for much-needed rain, storm clouds of mystery begin to gather. Once again, it’s time to put away her sun hat and put on her sleuthing cap . . .

May has been anything but merry for Cam so far. Her parents have arrived unexpectedly and her crops are in danger of withering away. But all of that’s nothing compared to the grim fate that lies in store for one of her neighbors. Nicole Kingsbury is the proud owner of the town’s new hydroponic greenhouse. She claims the process will be 100% organic, but she uses chemicals to feed her crops. To Cam’s surprise, her mother embarrasses her by organizing a series of loud public protests against Nicole’s operation.

When Nicole is found dead in a vat of hydroponic slurry—clutching another set of rosary beads—Detective Pete Pappas has a new murder to solve. Showers may be scarce this spring, but there’s no shortage of suspects, including the dead woman’s embittered exhusband, the Other Man whose affair ruined their marriage, and Cam’s own mother. Lucky for Cam, her father turns out to have a knack for sleuthing—not to mention dealing with chickens. Will he and Cam be able to clear Mrs. Flaherty’s name before the killer strikes again?

National best-selling author Edith Maxwell is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story, “The Mayor and the Midwife.” She writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries. As Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Maxwell’s award-winning short crime fiction has appeared in many juried anthologies, and she is honored to serve as President of Sisters in Crime New England.

A fourth-generation Californian and former tech writer, farmer, and doula, Maxwell now writes, cooks, gardens, and wastes time as a Facebook addict north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why I read kid books By Lori Rader-Day

Here’s a story for you. Back when the first Harry Potter book came out, a friend of mine tried to convince me to read it. I refused. “That’s a kid’s book, isn’t it?” I sneered. (I can literally feel the face I must have made.)

Fast forward a couple of years, and that same friend brought me back from England a paperback of the first book as a souvenir. If it’s a present, I have to read it. Also, it was short—who doesn’t love a quick read? Fast forward several more years and, long story short, I’m standing in line at midnight at my local bookstore for the last in the series.

Harry Potter tricked me.

Since then, I’ve made room on my shelves and in my reading list for books that are meant for much younger readers. Much younger. I have read a few young adult books, but that’s not what I mean. My sweet spot is 8 years to 12, kids. The middle-grade book.

If that book is a mystery, well, even better. In April, I’m leading a discussion with some of the Edgar Award-nominated (search category for “juvenile”) mysteries for young people at the Edgar Symposium in New York. That’s a job I volunteered for; I’ve been happily reading the nominees in preparation.

So why does a 40-something who once scoffed at reading under her age group now find joy in finding a smart kid-lit mystery?

A few reasons...

I’m tired.
So are you. Modern life is exhausting. You know what you don’t want? War and Peace, just this minute. Sure, classics are great. Dense reads are fantastic. But it’s OK to read something sweet, too. And it’s certainly fine to read something fun, even if it’s meant for the tween set. Besides, many of these books will take you to a different place just as handily as a book written for an adult. Have you read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy? Start here and then talk to me about how reading books for young people isn’t proper use of your time.

I’m keeping track.
I read about 50 books a year—about 30 less than I used to, before I started writing a book a year—which is a good haul. I keep track of what I read on Goodreads and in a notebook I keep at home. There’s no prize for that. I just do it, because if I didn’t, I would come on here and tell you I read 10 books last year. But since I’m keeping track, what’s wrong with a few short reads? A few palate-cleansing page-turners you can get done in one sitting is a good way to get your reading goal for the year met. I don’t count picture books. I’m not a monster.

I want to be distracted.
When I’m drafting my mystery novels, I don’t tend to read anything too closely aligned. Sheila Lowe’s mystery series on forensic handwriting, for instance, even though my new book, THE DAY I DIED, features a handwriting analyst. Why not? Because I didn’t want Lowe’s books to leak into mine. I read nonfiction, non-mysteries, and mysteries that are so unlike my style that I can be sure I’m not borrowing. This is where a strategically placed pile of kid lit can help me out.

I want to support mystery books for kids. Actual kids.
I’m a mystery fan from way back because of what I read when I was 8. To support the publishing of mysteries for young people, I buy mysteries for all the young readers in my life. The kid gets a present, and one I like giving. Suggestion: I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen is a mystery picture book, and it’s subversively funny. Check out the Edgar series from Jennifer Adams. He nevermore wants to go to bed! Selfishly, we also want these kids loving mystery now, so that they’ll be reading mysteries when they’re older.

I want to remember the joy of reading I got when I was a kid.
Most of us got our start as writers by being voracious readers. Do you remember? Walking into a library and knowing that you could take home any book in the place? Do you remember finding a book that took you somewhere you’d never been, somewhere you didn’t know existed, someplace that maybe doesn’t really exist? There’s magic in the words shared between writer and reader. Most of the time I’m on the job doling them out, but it’s nice to remember what it felt like to be on the receiving end, to be told a good, ripping story, just like when I was a kid and writing a book seemed like something only other people were allowed to do.

The good news is that those Edgar Award nominees I’m reading have been very good. When you go looking for a book that will turn you back into a gleeful kid, you won’t have to look that hard.

Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died, The Black Hour, and Little Pretty Things, is the recipient of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Lori’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is the president of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Excerpt—Must-Read Books for Writers

by Linda Rodriguez

Since I'm preparing to teach another class, I thought I'd offer Writers Who Kill readers another excerpt from my book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel—a handout I give to all my writing students, no matter the class. It's an annotated list of writing books that I feel are essential for people who are trying to write, books that I find essential for myself.

At the end of 2016, my seventh book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, was published. I took a popular course I taught for years on using depth of character as a springboard to a strong plot and turned it into a book designed to help the aspiring writer who wants to tell a story made compelling by the truth and complexity of its characters. In this book, I provide actual documents I've used to create my own published novels, demonstrating the methods I teach. You can find the complete book in trade paperback and ebook here.

Must-Read Books for Writers

I have a larger collection of books on creative writing than most college libraries own. I have been collecting, reading, and studying them all my life. And in one way or another, I have found them all useful.

Some recapitulate concepts, techniques, and tips from many other books, but they will perhaps have one I haven’t yet encountered—or they will express one or more I’ve met before in such a way that it sinks in more deeply than it did when I ran across it earlier. So I count those books still successful for me, if in small ways.

Many of the books I own deal with specific kinds of writing or with specific techniques—mysteries and suspense, science fiction, dialogue, plotting—and I’ve often found them extremely useful, frequently return to the best of them again and again.

When I wanted to narrow down my books to a most-critical shortlist for this blog, I found that repeatedly the books that shot to the top were books that dealt with the writing process as a whole, with being a writer and living a writer’s life. Each will have some specific techniques within, but the book as a whole is about the process of becoming and being a writer. They deal with overcoming negativity and fear, dealing with belittling from others, developing the discipline necessary to make a life as a writer, defeating the intimidation of starting a big project, and in one blessed case, how to make a writing life within the business of writing and publishing.

These are the books I recommend again and again to students and friends, to anyone who asks me for advice and help. They are books I still go back to time and again. They’re not the only good books on writing. I never get rid of any of my vast collection of writing books because they all have at least one thing to offer me. 
But these ten books are the ones I would keep if I could suddenly only have ten books on writing in my library.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life is at the top of the list because it is such a little gem. I’ve bought so many copies of this book to give to aspiring writers. I only wish it had been available to me earlier in my career. By the time, I discovered it I’d learned some of what it teaches the hard way. It rings true in all of its suggestions and guidelines because See is a successful writer and teacher who’s writing from experience. Living a Literary Life deals with things few other books do, such as how to have a writing career when you live far from the epicenter of publishing in New York or how to develop friendships and connections with literary and publishing colleagues if you know no one. This last may seem easier to do now that social media is available, but See’s suggestions in this area are even more relevant in a time when a handwritten note is remarkable. If I can recommend or give only one book, this is the one I choose.

Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer is the other book I’d give if only allowed to give two. Published in the 1930s and long out of print, award-winning novelist John Gardner swore by it and mentioned its importance in one of his own books on writing (see below), which led to it being reissued with a foreword by Gardner. This book deals with the psychology of the writer, with how to develop the confidence, the focus, and the discipline any writer needs and how to learn what your material, your individual forte as a writer is. It teaches us techniques to connect with our creativity and learn to see and experience the world as writers. It would be worth a fortune for its technique of “Act As If” alone, which has been picked up by many other writing gurus and self-help authors. It also offers the initial appearance of the fruitful technique of freewriting first thing in the morning (later built on by Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron among others). This book is a lifesaver for writers.

These two, above all the others, are immensely helpful to anyone who wants to write as more than a hobby. For the rest of the books on the list, I have no definite order. They offer different things to the writer and fill different needs, so it wasn’t workable for me to rank them by importance. Each would leave an important hole in my writing library if it were missing, however.

Uber best-selling Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the best general guides to writing extant. A master class in a book, it’s a tiny treasure house of useful and pithy advice on everything from getting and taking feedback, individual techniques like description, plot, and character, how to organize a workspace and structure your day’s work to his stricture on reading that I love to quote to students: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” And this is definitely one of the books you need to make time to read.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones marries Dorothea Brande’s freewriting morning pages technique to her own intensive yoga background to build a tremendously useful set of practices for writers to follow. This book focuses on getting in touch with your own creative spirit and defeating resistance and fear. It’s more modern in outlook than Brande’s and the borrowings from yoga are quite useful. It takes the important foundations of Brande’s book and adds to them, but you won’t find all those foundations here, so though I recommend this book highly, if you have to make a choice of only one, get Brande’s. (Julia Cameron has taken the same techniques and added another layer of 12-step spirituality and dogma to them in The Artist’s Way. Many have found that helpful to them, as well, but again you won’t find all the important fundamentals Brande gives you in The Artist’s Way, either.)

Award-winning children’s book author Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet is an intimate little book, the first of her Crosswicks Journals series. A meditative book about life and writing, it’s also a book about failure and rejection, about feeling guilty for taking time to write when earning no money from it, about the collision of family and writing, and about the humility that good writing requires. Some of the most important things I’ve taken from this book have been her focus on using journals and writer’s notebooks to do various writing exercises, which she gives you in the book, and her stress that real artists keep studying, practicing, and learning all the time in order to keep growing. You can learn much from this book, and it’s the ultimate writer’s comfort book when feeling down.

Leonard Bishop’s Dare to Be a Great Writer is a big book with a big title. Bishop was a grade-school dropout, thief, and hobo who became a critically acclaimed novelist and friend of Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller before becoming one of the top-rated writing professors in the country. His big, brash book is blunt in its advice, which ranges from discipline and structuring your life around writing to tons of techniques from tiny to large, from smooth sentence transitions to genre structures. This is a fabulous writer’s reference. Each separate entry is in alphabetical order and thus easy to look up and refer to. My copy sits next to my desk marked with a rainbow of Post-Its and bookmarks.

Bestselling mystery novelist Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Writer’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life is aimed at the writer of mysteries and crime fiction, but offers great help for all novelists. George provides another master class in this book with a detailed overview of how to construct a novel, a step-by-step analysis of her process from idea to final edits, and help with all kinds of technique, using examples from her own work and that of other commercial and literary novelists. Again, this is a book I return to time and again, always learning something. An example of one of her unique technique helps is THADs, Talking Head Avoidance Devices, ways to occupy characters when they must have a critical dialogue so that more happens on the page than just the dreaded talking heads as in a public affairs TV show.

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit is another older book, one that Carl Sandburg called “the best book ever written about how to write." This is a book about tapping into your own creative spirit and delight. Her chapter titles alone are a treatise on the writing life. Here are two examples: “Everybody is Talented, Original and Has Something Important to Say” and “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.” She stresses that any creative gift increases as we use it and with some lazy time, which she calls “moodling” and insists is critical to the really important big, slow ideas. Read this book to help find your creative center.

John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is hugely helpful to novelists in particular. Gardner is widely considered one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, and he taught many other critically acclaimed writers, such as Raymond Carver. Gardner, as I mentioned earlier, was responsible for bringing Dorothea Brande’s book from obscurity, and his own book is a grand follow-up to hers, but aimed at novelists and not all writers. Gardner goes deeply into the need to create a kind of dream-state in the reader’s mind as well as the benefits of repeated revisions. There’s much in here about making a writer’s life for yourself today and much as well about the benefits and difficulties for novelists of MFA program that are centered on poetry and short fiction.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is, like, Stephen King’s book, part autobiography of the writer and part guidebook to the world of the working writer. Though not as absolutely useful in practical terms to the writer as King’s book, Dillard’s is full of strange beauties and a real sense of the writer as one who is, or should be, dedicated spiritually to her art. One of my favorite writing quotes comes from this book: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

These are the ten gems of my collection that I originally recommended to all of my classes. I’ve since added two other books to the list. The first is a new book just recently published, Writes of Passage, a collection of essays from successful writers (including me) who are members of the national writers organization, Sisters in Crime, essays about almost every aspect of writing a novel in general and mysteries in particular. These essays cover craft issues, problem-solving tips, the business of writing, as well as inspiration and encouragement for the inevitable slough of despond.

The second is a book by the great master storyteller, Ursula K. Le Guin, called Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Le Guin takes issue with the prominence of conflict as a necessity in modern novels and pushes for change as the catalyst of story instead. She explains each aspect of craft in lucid terms, illustrating it with excerpts from great writers, such as Virginia Woolf, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Mark Twain, and offers charming and challenging exercises. This book is a self-directed master class with one of the finest writers living.

You may, like me, be a collector of books about writing, but even if you never buy or check out from the library any books on writing other than these, you will want these twelve books, and you will find them helpful over and over again.

Linda Rodriguez's book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel is based on her popular workshop. The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited was recently published. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is chair of the AWP Indigenous/Aboriginal American Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community.