Friday, July 31, 2015


                                        Write What You Know, a Variation on the Theme

For a long time I have wondered why — Write What You Know — is the most common advice given to people who are new to the practice of writing.  It’s not bad advice. I don’t disagree with it, but I’ve never thought it was particularly helpful. 

Unless your career is in law, journalism or law enforcement, your profession may not tie into mystery or suspense easily.   That doesn’t disqualify anyone from being a writer, but if your field is computer programming, carpentry or whatever, it’s not clear what to do next.  

After mulling it over for some time I have decided that a variation on the theme would be helpful.  Although it is usually better to frame advice in a positive way, I think rephrasing the statement into the negative is a more helpful way to advise aspiring writers. 

Don’t write what you don’t know.  Is there anyone who disagrees with that statement?  After that there is a corollary piece of advice. If you want to write about something you don’t know well, learn about that something before you start writing about it. 

My novels take place in Illinois and Kansas during the 1840s and 1850s.  I started by knowing almost nothing about the time period.  There wasn’t anyone around who knew about it by living through it.  There were, however histories and, much more helpful, there were documents written by people who lived at that time.  Letters, newspapers and diaries were great sources about how people thought and felt. I can not over-emphasize the importance of seeking primary sources.  Every historian or commentator starts from a point-of-view.   Even attempts to present information in a non-biased way, cannot be completely successful. 

I have written two novels about Abraham Lincoln.   I relied heavily on documents written by Lincoln.  Historians debate any number of things about the elusive “real man” behind the icon.  I have my own ideas about the issues. For example, in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln made a statement suggesting that women would be able to vote in the future.  Some historians apparently feel the statement was a joke he made.  Others seem to think he was making a statement about the equality of men and women.  Personally, I think it was both.  By the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in my opinion Lincoln no longer told stories only for entertainment as he had earlier in his life.  I believe he used humor in a masterful way manner to bring up issues and concerns that would have been startling or controversial if addressed directly. 

So, that’s my version of the advice.  

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Camping With My Sisters

One of the lakes we camped near
Two weeks ago on an early Thursday morning, I headed out for a camping trip in Indiana and Illinois with my sisters Elaine and Suzanne. We went in two cars with each of my sisters driving one. Our ultimate goal was to visit the Lincoln Historical Museum and other sites in Springfield, Ill.
Clifty Falls Inn with the power plant stacks behind it.
Our first two nights were spent at Clifty Falls State Park in Southern Indiana on a high point a little north of the Ohio River. We had a lovely camp spot with two sites next to each other, although we discovered the huge power plant nearby was noisy at night. Only one vehicle per site was permitted. We each had our own tents. We were tired from the long drive, so decided to eat dinner at the Clifty Falls Inn, a wonderful place with lounges, a huge dining room, large windows providing a view, and delicious food reasonably priced. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we decided to skip oatmeal in the camp and eat breakfast at the Inn instead. The servers were young high school seniors, pleasant and not only willing to answer our questions, but seemed to enjoy talking about what their life goals were when they graduated.
There were trees closer to the shore with water all around them.
After breakfast we went to the historical town of Madison on the Ohio River. It was a charming little town and we enjoyed touring the downtown area and all their shops including Village Lights Bookstore. Yes, I bought some books. We ate lunch at the Lighthouse Restaurant anchored in the river with a walkway that didn’t look very safe as it was floating close to the surface of a river high from all the rain they’d had. The fish sandwiches were good, simple and served in plastic baskets.

Air mattress, bedding, clothing, small lamp but no books.

That night we ate dinner at the Inn again. It was hot and humid and no one felt like cooking. As we were leaving, we noticed dark skies. However, several people with access to weather reports said it was the tail end of a storm so we wouldn’t get much if any rain. We settled into our individual tents to read as the wind blew and it started to rain. Then the sirens went off. Suzanne came to our tents and said someone reported it was a flood warning. Since we were too high for that to be a problem, we ignored them. Then the wind picked up considerably, thunder and lightning was getting severe so Elaine and I headed for her car and Suzanne went to the large wash house where many campers had headed just as the deluge was starting.  Wind reached gale strength with trees bending close to the ground. As we watched, Elaine started laughing because she saw my tent fly off the ground and get caught on the picnic table where it rested on its side. My tarp flew past the car. I laughed, too. When the rain let up to a drizzle, Suzanne came back, and we checked things out. I righted my tent, but there was no way I could sleep inside it. Everything was soaked. It was the same with my sisters’ tents. So Elaine and I spent a miserable night trying to sleep in the front seat of her car and Suzanne in hers. We went to Clifty Inn for breakfast. Afterwards we packed up our wet stuff, and on the way to the next campground, we stopped at a laundromat and dried everything.
Abe Martin Lodge
Our next camp was Yellowwood State Park. The camp host brought us a load of free firewood. It was a primitive campsite with no flush toilets unless you drove to the entrance where the wash house was. We had a view of Yellowwood Lake through the trees, and a trail that led down to the shore. Because it was hot and humid, we headed for Abe Martin Lodge in Brown County State Park. Abe Martin is a cartoon character created by a local inhabitant in the 1930s. It was another delightful place to eat, more rustic in appearance, but with flower gardens and a large dining area filled with people enjoying their meals. The food was delicious, ample and again reasonable. Best of all was the folk singer who entertained us. That night my air pump didn’t work quite as well filling my air mattress, but at least it put some air in it so I slept reasonably well, falling asleep to the sound of owls. At least until the baby in the next site woke up screaming and crying for almost an hour with the father grumbling and complaining. In the morning his mother said he was teething.

We went on to Clinton Lake State Recreation area to camp several nights. It was a nice campsite with glimpses of the lake. However, there was lots of poison ivy around the campsite and even worse, my air pump no longer worked. I’d set up my tent on a dry gravel patch in the campsite we shared. It was not a comfortable night.
The  Union Station

Next morning we went to Springfield. The Lincoln Museum was everything I wished it would be and even more so. We stopped at the Union Train Station to get our admission wrist bands. There they showed parts of the movie Lincoln and how the movie was made, videos of the stars talking about it, and the dresses worn by Sally Field and others.

We went through the park beside the station and looked at the statues before going to the museum. I can’t begin to tell everything about that museum, only that it was one of the best, if not the best, museum I’ve ever visited, and I’ve visited many museums in my years of traveling. It was so touching that even if I hadn’t read several biographies of Lincoln, I would still have felt strong emotions.

I'm standing next to Mary Todd Lincoln

After lunch nearby, we went to the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site in Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was interesting, too, but by then we were a little saturated with all we’d seen and heard so we headed back to our campsite to rest for a few hours before going to dinner at a small restaurant on the lake.

The Lincoln Tomb

I spent another uncomfortable night on the ground since new batteries hadn’t revived my pump. We packed up in the morning and headed for Whitewater Memorial State Park in Indiana not far from the Ohio border. It was a nice clean park with wash houses with showers and flush toilets throughout the campgrounds. We were able to get in a good hike – we’d only had one hike this trip at Clifty Falls. One thing that amused us at the park was a cardinal I dubbed Don Quixote because it did battle with the side mirrors as well as the front windows of both of our cars for the two days we were there stopping only for a few moments to watch us to see if we were still sitting in our lawn chairs or far enough away not to be a problem.

Don Quixote on my sisters side mirr
The next morning we headed home. With only a few stops for gas and food, I got home late Thursday afternoon to a happy dog, cats and ponies. My friend Laura was there to greet me. She’d house sat for me and was an excellent caretaker for all my critters. She left the house clean and in the fridge she had delicious barbecued chicken she’d made for my supper. It was a good trip except for the heat and humidity, the storm and the flattened air mattress, but still there’s nothing like being back in my own home with my critters, electric lights to read by, music on my CD player, and most especially a comfortable mattress.  

Our hike up to the top to see Clifty Falls
Have you ever gone camping?
What vacation do you remember best?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

An Interview with Kathleen Delaney


Old Dr. Sadler is dead in the cemetery, his head bashed in by the arm of a marble angel. Ellen McKenzie has to find the killer soon ... before another death puts a stop to her wedding. Dan Dunham, the groom, is Santa Louisa's Chief of Police. The guest list is growing and Ellen's dreams of an intimate candlelight ceremony are rapidly disappearing.


When Grace House, a halfway house for women, goes up in flames, Ellen invites them all--including a newborn--to move in with her and Dan. As a real estate agent, Ellen hopes to find a new building, yet every suspect is connected to Grace House. Are Ellen and Dan in danger? Will they ever solve the murders and get their lives back?


Kathleen Delaney is the author of the Ellen McKenzie mystery series and the Mary McGill canine series. I had the good fortune to win a copy of Murder Half Baked in a drawing and am happy that I did. It was an enjoyable read, and it made me want to get to know Kathleen, who has an interesting background. She has been a real estate broker on California's central coast, the setting for the Ellen McKenzie books, bred and shown Arabian and half Arabian horses, and now writes about murder. 

I am pleased to welcome Kathleen Delaney to Writers Who Kill.     
                                                                                Grace Topping

Kathleen Delaney
Kirkus Reviews calls you an “enjoyable addition to the cozy scene.” Would you describe your books as cozies? In Murder Half Baked, in addition to murder, you raised the issues of dementia, forced adoptions, domestic abuse, women’s shelters, and arson, and you still managed to include some humor.

My books are labeled cozies and in many senses they are. No graphic violence, all sex remains behind the closed bedroom door and the action takes place in a community of people who know each other. I think the issues you mentioned, abuse, dementia, move them more into what used to be called traditional mysteries, but there is still a puzzle to be solved. Who did it, and more importantly, why. As to the humor, bizarre things happen in the most awful circumstances and I think they relieve the tension, so I look for them.

The scene of Ellen and others trying to get Janice and Ian safely to a women’s shelter was quite suspenseful. You also brought up the issue of sufficient funding for women’s halfway houses and shelters. Is this an issue that you particularly wanted to highlight?

I wanted to make the point how important safe houses are. Getting funding for them is never easy, and I’ve been involved in collecting donations for a local one. I also was able to interview the director of one close to where I used to live, and she gave me a whole new insight on their importance and their needs.

You draw on your background as a real estate agent in writing your series. Does making the real estate issues integral to the story and keeping it interesting present a challenge? How do you protect against getting too technical?

I try very hard not to get too technical. I’ve watched many clients' eyes glaze over as I’ve walked them through a pile of papers while we were either listing their property or preparing an offer to buy. But there are some things that are fun to put into a story and I think help move the action forward. A real estate agent meets a lot of different people, and gets involved in a lot of emotional experiences, both joyful ones and not so joyful. I find I can draw on them as long as I don’t use exact events. And, I can exaggerate them, as in Dying for a Change, the first in the Ellen McKenzie series. Ellen finds a body in the first house she ever tries to show. I’ve never found a body and I’ve shown a lot of houses.

I’ve often heard that writers should give their main character a flaw—something for the character to work on throughout a book or series. Did you give Ellen a flaw, and if so, what is it?

In the first book, Dying for a Change, Ellen returns to her hometown after a flawed marriage and a nasty divorce. Her confidence in herself and in her ability to build a good relationship with someone, have been badly shaken. How she overcomes these issues runs through the next few books. However, what you don’t want to do is have that flaw take over your character. The story wouldn’t be very interesting if Ellen sat in a corner feeling sorry for herself or chewing her fingernails off worrying she can’t adjust to a new life or a new love.

The arm of a cemetery marble angel is used as a murder weapon. That was quite imaginative. The angel became the angel of death. Did you intend for it to be symbolic?

Actually, no. I have no idea where that idea came from, but when it did, I grabbed it. That was one time when the whole first chapter came to me, and I just let go and wrote.

You had a number of very plausible red herrings. I suspected everybody in the book, and you still managed to surprise me. Do you plot your books carefully, or do you just write by the seat of your pants?

A little of each. I don’t outline, but once I’ve worked out who the people are and how they’re going to go about achieving their goals, good or bad, things start to fall into place. Although, in Murder Half Baked, I had a hard time making the plot work. I had the wrong person tagged as the murderer. When I finally listened to what the characters were telling me, I realized who did it and why, and the whole thing worked.  It usually takes a couple of revisions before I get the plot right and the clues placed where they make sense but don’t give away who done it.

Which writer has influenced you the most? Who do you enjoy reading when you have time?

Oh, boy. I grew up reading Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie, all those wonderful ladies who made up the golden years of the English mystery. I also read, with great relish, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Mark Twain. I read way too many excellent mystery writers to be able to begin to list them, or the many excellent ones writing today. I keep discovering new ones all the time. I love to write, but I love to read as well, and the dishes will stay in the sink if I’m into a really good book.

We all look back on things we’ve written and wished that we had done some things differently. Anything in your books that you wished you had changed?

That’s a hard one. My daughter says I let Ellen think out loud a little too much. Maybe she’s right. But they do need to think about what happened and why. Fine line there.

The cakes and pastries you described in the bakery scenes made me hungry. Tell us about the research you did for these scenes. I was disappointed that you hadn’t included the recipe for lemon semolina cake. Weren’t you even a little tempted to include a few recipes in the back of your book?

I visited bakeries from Sedona, Arizona to Myrtle Beach, SC, drooling over their display cases and trailing around behind the bakers in their kitchens, asking questions while eating cherry Danish and other things. Yes, I did think about including recipes, but it is so easy to find wonderful ones online today, I decided to concentrate on the story. As for lemon semolina cake, the piece I had in an Italian bakery in New York was wonderful, but when I got home and tried to make one, it was an unqualified disaster. So, no, I wasn’t tempted to include the recipe.

What’s next for Ellen and Dan? Are there going to be more books in the series?

Right now, I’ve just finished Curtains for Miss Plym, the second in the Mary McGill canine series, and am starting to plot the next one. These are set in Santa Louisa and Ellen and Dan appear in them, but not in starring roles, so we’ll see.  The first book in the new series, Purebred Dead, has already been released in England and is getting great reviews. It will be available here, in the US, August 1 of this year. Can hardly wait.

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Is your work area messy or neat?

While I’m working, it’s a mess. So is the house. I hate messes, so I try, but nothing gets back to pristine neatness until I’m done. Then, in a frenzy, I go through everything, throw away everything I don’t think I need (which is a lot), stuff the rest in folders, wash everything not nailed down, including the dogs beds, polish furniture, wash windows and stand back and admire my orderly home and life. It never lasts very long.

Thank you, Kathleen.

For more information about Kathleen Delaney and her series, visit

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Clothed in Imagination

If clothes make the (wo)man, does that mean that what you wear is a visible representation of your life, your story? Last year I paged through a J. Peterman catalog (they call it an Owner’s Manual) for the first time and saw that each item of clothing had a mini-story associated with it. Perhaps to add an additional layer of fantasy, most of the items are illustrated instead of photographed. I understand that they use this long copy technique to sell clothes, but honestly it made me look at my wardrobe and wonder what tales my clothes are telling.

Here are some sample stories from the catalog for your reading pleasure:


               An indiscretion here, some questionable assets there, and next thing you know a little ad in the back of that fashion magazine catches your eye:
               “Legally obtain a second passport…become a Perpetual Traveler, avoid taxes, governments and hassles.”
               You could head for Luxembourg or Turks and Caicos, but I suggest Quito, Ecuador. You can’t beat the year-round climate or the expat bars, and the dollars to sucres exchange rate is still favorable.
               In preparation for departure, I suggest you pack this soft cotton corset and matching skirt, with its blossoming skirt panels with pintucks.
               I can see you now, the soul of innocence, sitting in a café on the Avenida Amazonas, sipping a Trago spiced with cinnamon and reading about your mysterious disappearance in the International Herald Tribune.

Italian Colors of Vernazza.
Are intoxicating, like this dress, like Maya.
We first met as she sauntered across the cobblestone wearing it (I would later describe it to her as mosey, but she said that was too American).
It’s when I discovered I had synesthesia. Frank Lloyd Wright claimed to hear music when he designed buildings; Nabokov saw the letter o as an “ivory-backed hand mirror.”
Upon seeing Maya mosey (sorry) in her cheery linen dress, I heard an ebullient tambourine and smelled freshly cut nasturtiums. When she got close, with the soft linen clinging and contrast trim hitting her tanned legs, I had the sensation of tasting the most exquisite carambola.
Interesting, I know. N.B. Wine is not an antidote for synesthesia.

“My will to win.”

It was almost a confession, really.
He buttoned his slicker, his hands still shaking from being underwater for three minutes. Hair still smeared in sand. Skinned forehead still bleeding in a way you can only do pinned on the soft sea floor 30 feet down, 100 yards out.
I’d of course heard that statement before—haven’t we all? But this was different. It wasn’t a claim, a boast, nothing artificial like those words usually come wrapped in. It was a personal weight. Not quite a burden because he loved it. But something deep he carried with him that often tortured him, like his father’s expectations.
Salty ocean air can be an elixir (and breezy).

Apparently, you can also tell your story using jewelry. For instance, some jewelry companies like Origami Owl sell clear lockets in which the wearer can display meaningful charms that capture her story.

But who has time to shop for the perfect shirt or accessory when there are so many stories to tell? Or, am I too absorbed in my characters’ lives and fail to tell my own story?

As an aside, I don’t completely agree with Mark Twain. For instance, Lady Godiva is still remembered for riding naked through the streets in the 11th century to protest a tax imposed by her husband. Today, she has delightful chocolates named in her honor.

Do you wear your story? Or, do you throw on whatever is handy and spend your time telling your characters’ story?