Sunday, January 31, 2016

Days of Wine and Chocolate

Alfred HItchcock Mystery Magazine, sparkling wine, and chocolate

The summer after my senior year of college, I spent eight weeks in a copy editing internship for Newsday on Long Island, New York. At the end of the summer, my colleagues asked what kind of going away party I’d like to have. They offered suggestions from the ridiculous (the managing editor in a tutu singing my alma mater’s fight song) to the ridiculously indulgent (chocolate and champagne). I chose the second, and oh my, that party was the most lavish, rich, and decadent of my life: Bottles of champagne and chocolate everything: Chocolate-covered potato chips, a solid foot-long chocolate ruler, chocolate-covered fruit, chocolate cups filled with chocolate liqueur.

Maybe it’s the champagne talking, but I loved the news business with a passion that day, and I still love it, though my career took a sharp, voluntary turn away from the newsroom many years ago.

That celebration, though, and the way it made me feel—valued, part of something big and important, tipsy—stuck with me.

So it was bittersweet this week to raise a glass of bubbly to toast the publication of a short story that has roots in my journalism past.

In recent years, almost everyone I know in the journalism world has been laid off or threatened with layoffs. Newsroom staffs dwindled to nothing. Newspapers began outsourcing everything, including copy editing, my old job. Two years ago, our local paper outsourced printing to another nearby, larger newspaper, and all of my friends who worked with the presses and in the mailroom lost their jobs.

That’s when I began writing “Abundance of Patience,” a short story loosely inspired by layoffs in the news industry and published in the March 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Bowl of corks
Since I started writing and publishing fiction, I’ve kept a “celebrations bowl” on my counter. Every time I publish a new piece, I pop the cork on a bottle of sparkling wine, then write the name of the publication and date on the cork and drop it in the bowl. My bowl, like my aspirations, is large. After my first publication, the single cork looked a little silly, but I left it on the counter as a reminder and an inspiration.

The bowl’s nowhere close to full yet, but I added cork number four this week and, in a toned-down echo of that party in New York, celebrated my new publication and my longstanding admiration for newspapers and news people.

Sweet chocolate tempered with the bite of champagne.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why Do Perfectly Normal People Like to Read About Murder? By Denise Rodgers

I must confess. In addition to writing murder mysteries, I am an avid mystery reader. If you did a
body count on all the victims in the stories I’ve read, the total would be in the hundreds, maybe edging up into the thousands.

And yet, I’m a totally nonviolent, even squeamish person. I don’t like killing bugs, unless they are large and ugly and have invaded my home. I don’t even look when I have a blood draw at the doctor’s office. For the record, I don’t like looking at other people’s blood either. I’ve been known to irritate friends by walking out of particularly violent movies. Yes, I am a delicate little flower.

So what gives? Why am I perpetually reading a mystery? A murder mystery, at that. Well, one reason is I tend to read cozy or cozy-style mysteries. To me, that means all the violence and even the explicit sex, for that matter, are off-screen. These things happen; we know they happen, but we don’t see or read about it in detail. So that helps.

But still, delicate flower that I am (not really), why all the bodies? Why all the victims? What is it that is so satisfying about this genre?

Believe it or not, despite all the violence—or implied violence—the mystery novel presents a more perfect world. Yes, there is a murder. Yes, there is conflict—because without a healthy dose of conflict the book would be unbearably boring. But what all mystery books also have is resolution.

Not only does the bad guy or gal get caught, as readers we get to find out why the perp felt compelled—and justified—to commit such a heinous act. Justice is served, on a silver platter. Peace reigns. And all is right with the world. Well, that might be overplaying it a bit, but you get the idea. The bad guy gets his, and it just feels right.

Not only that, but in a particularly good series, as a reader, you get to know the characters, and each succeeding novel is a chance to visit and see the main characters grow and change. Sometimes there is a budding romance. Sometimes, there is a love triangle. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, a love triangle persists through way, way too many novels in the series. (But that is the subject for another blog post.) The point is that it’s fun to return to the world the author has created and enjoy the setting and the characters, once again, without having to re-read the same novel over and over. It’s fun and addictive, which explains the popularity of mystery series. (It also explains all the books in my collection. The photo is but a tiny sampling that obviously does not include my Nook and Kindle titles and more.)

So here I am, a perfectly normal person. Okay, a relatively normal person; just ask my relatives, and I can’t wait to get back to my current read. Among my currently favorite mystery authors are: Denise Swanson, Diane Mott Davidson, Earlene Fowler, Jana DeLeon, Laura Levine, Duncan Whitehead, Amy Metz, L.L. Bartlett, Joanne Fluke, Leslie Meier, Alan Bradley, Deb Baker, Louise Penny… and so many more. I told you there were a lot of bodies!

Denise Rodgers is the author of Deadly Diamonds, and the soon-to-be-released Murderous Emeralds, the first of her growing Jeweltown Mystery series. She is the author of two poetry books for children, and many of her poems have been anthologized as well as published in educational textbooks around the world.

As a lifelong metro Detroiter, she spent many of her early adult years working in her family’s retail jewelry business. She lives in a suburb near Royal Oak, Michigan, with her husband and two small dogs. Her two sons and their families—including three of the most beautiful, intelligent, and talented grandchildren on earth, and one more due in February—all live nearby.

She can be reached at deniserodgersbooks @ (no spaces) or visit

Friday, January 29, 2016

Mystery History

Mystery History by Warren Bull

Two works of fiction are often cited as early examples of writing which inspired the development of fictional mystery writing. One is Voltaire’s Zadig. Presented as an ancient Arabic tale told in a Persian court, the author hoped to avoid re-incarceration for criticizing the powerful. He had been jailed twice before. Voltaire made no attempt at accuracy in the story, but used the façade to make thinly veiled comments about the society he lived in. In brief, Zadig, the hero, tried to live a virtuous life among the hypocrites, gossips and liars of Babylon. All of his efforts and his honesty repeatedly brought forth envy, lust, jealousy and other negative emotions in others. They plotted his demise. Zadig barely escaped execution by a variety of unlikely circumstances repeatedly. The church and legal hierarchy were lampooned along with the nobility, pretention and ignorance. 

It is an interesting tale and it is well told. But what does this have to do with mystery fiction? In the interest of full disclosure I got so caught up in the writing that I had read reviews to find the answer. As part of his attempt to live according to teachings of the book of Zoroaster, Zadig studied nature and his environment. He acquired knowledge that others did not possess. As always in the tale, using his knowledge in an honest fashion gets him in serious trouble. Two beloved animals escaped from the palace.  Searchers asked Zadig if he had seen them. The hero described the animals and then said he had never seen them and did not know they existed until he was questioned. The listeners reacted like evil Dr. Watsons. Not knowing how the hero knew what he knew. They assumed Zadig had stolen the animals and prepared to execute him. Only after the animals were found would they listen to his explanation that signs of their passing through the natural environment gave in him information about them.  He could then reasonably estimate their size and appearance.

Zadig used deductive reasoning ala Sherlock Holmes, which is a mainstay of mystery fiction.
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is the other work cited as inspiring mystery writers. The story about a slave ship was published in 1855 when slave ships were relatively common. I found it difficult to imagine that situation.

With this work, I quickly became aware of the technique used and reused and re-reused. In Melville’s story a ship’s captain, Amasa Delano, saw another vessel, which was drifting toward danger even though he could see people aboard the ship. The captain boarded the ship and discovered it has a cargo of slaves who roamed around the ship freely. The slaves did not know how to sail the ship. There were too few sailors to control the ship. There was no officer aboard except for the captain, Benito Cereno, who was constantly attended by his personal slave, Babo. Cereno said many men were lost due to a disaster.

Delano supplied water and food. He had his men set the sails. Delano observed odd behavior on the part of Cereno and the others on board. He wondered if things on the ship were not what they appeared to be, but then, his trusting nature made him distrust his suspicions. Delano saw another oddity, but ignored his reaction. Etcetera, so forth, so on, and on and on and … You get the idea. The story moved agonizingly slowly. The reader knew something was wrong long before the blockhead of a captain did. In fact Delano never figured it out. He had to be told. To be fair, the point was made in the story that if he had reacted with suspicion, he would have been immediately murdered. Although I knew something was wrong, I did not guess exactly what. In the interest of full disclosure I skimmed much of the story and had to force myself to keep going.

Nevertheless, the concept of building suspense incrementally and giving clues one at a time did become part of standard storytelling in mystery writing.

I always find it interesting to examine the earliest signs of whatever has developed.

Have you ever backtracked an interest to its earliest appearance?  If so, what did you discover?

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Sometime last spring I went back to reading Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series all over. I’d read the first six or seven when she started publishing them and loved them from the beginning. When I started going to Malice nine years ago, I received a bag of books they give to all participants, and also bought books by new authors I discovered while attending. So my piles and piles of books kept multiplying as well as my interest in new authors I was reading; Louise Penny, Rhys Bowen, and many others. Added to that, I joined two book clubs after I retired so there were two additional books I felt compelled to read each month. Fortunately, I enjoyed most of them and was glad to not only read those, but to be introduced to other new authors.
Some of my Margaret Maron books
As much as I love to read, I don’t have time to read for hours each day, and not because I’m a big TV watcher or Facebook fan. Like most people, I lead a very busy life, and my reading also includes the daily newspaper and Time Magazine. However, Margaret Maron’s books were still on my shelf and becoming more plentiful since I’d pick up new ones whenever I came across them or they appeared in the Mystery Guild Book Club I belong to. Since I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d left off, it seemed only reasonable to start at the beginning as I only remembered a few things, which didn’t include the plot, the murder or who done it with the earlier ones. Also, since I like to start a series at the beginning, I started with the Bootlegger’s Daughter, and fell in love with her writing all over again. I continued reading her books always with a few other books in between; book club choices, new authors to start, or other mystery authors like Elizabeth George, whose books have grown longer and longer with each new one she writes. Then there were the gift books I got for my birthday or books by authors interviewed on WWK. I just finished my 15th Judge Deborah Knott book this week. While I was waiting to fill in the gaps of books I didn’t have, I read the first three Sigrid Harold books that were Margaret Maron’s first series. I liked those, too.
Front: Linda, Ann, Carol. Back: Sue, Jean, Me

When my Third Thursday book club met at my house before Christmas to go over the books we were going to choose for the following year. One of the three I suggested was Bootlegger’s Daughter. We chose it for January’s meeting which was last Thursday. Before we got started discussing the book, I asked them to write their opinion of the book and what they liked or didn’t like. As a group the only thing they didn’t like was the cover because they thought it didn’t relate to the book.  Following are their comments:

I’m all about characters. Maron introduces us to small town, believable folks complete with warts and beauty marks. I love that all the ends are tied up into a smooth strand, not a last minute knot. Best part – I guessed “who done it!” Linda Bailey

The setting and characters of this small town are refreshing and true to life. I could envision all of it. The interactions were truly representative of how people’s conduct is in a small town. Ann Cicero

Deborah is such a strong practical woman. Many or most of the characters seem to like and trust her allowing her to solve the secret of Janie’s death, as well as that of Michael’s and Denn’s. I was so glad that Deborah and her father seemed to be finding a kind of peace. Sue Johnson

The “cover” issue was a concern to me, because I often return to it as I’m reading the book to picture the scenes presented throughout. It only seemed to fit somewhat in the beginning. Otherwise it wasn’t related. It bothered me less than a third of the way through, but then Maron had me wanting to know what happens next, and what happened way before. I especially appreciated how well she acquaints the reader to the people and to the places. It reminded me of our little town, especially the specialness of so many of the people I met there and in our town. Even the description of the Dobb’s Ledger and the importance of the death and life of each person. The obits in the paper were not written as a list, but more as a person’s life story just like a home paper. I can hardly wait to get back and find out where she’s taking me. Jean Morningstar

While I realized that this is an older cover, I’m glad I didn’t have to judge the book by its cover. This older version seems to fit only the beginning of the book, not the spirit of it. I enjoyed the characters and their relationships. Another wonderful part was the vividness of the description of the photograph of Deborah’s parents. As a reader, I could see it as clearly as if it was in front of me. Carol Baker

Our group is not a large one, and we were missing a few at this past meeting because of weather or sickness, and another member goes to Florida for the winter. However, over the past nine plus years, with some members leaving and a few added, we have become a very tight group. We meet right before lunch at a restaurant to discuss the book, and then talk and laugh about a large variety of other topics. Some stay for lunch and others have to leave for appointments. We’re all retired and at least four of us were teachers and one is a retired librarian.  Almost all the members, except for me and one other, live in the small town we meet in. They in particular thought the small town characters were very believable. It’s rather rare that the comments about any book we choose are all positive. We have some members who almost always find something to criticize about a book, but for this book it was only the cover which few authors have a choice in the matter anyway. 
Her latest book

What’s my opinion of the book? Well I wouldn’t have read it for the third time before we got together to discuss it if I didn’t love it. There isn’t much I could add to their comments, except that while continuing the series, more and more I feel I know the people and the area where Deborah Knott lives. A common comment writers hear is to write what you know.  Because Maron has lived in the area she writes about much of her life is one of the reasons it seems so real. I only hope Margaret Maron keeps on writing her Deborah Knott series because I’m not ready to quit reading them.

Have you read Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott series?
What other series have you been hooked on?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Interview with Terrie Farley Moran

by Grace Topping


Writing is usually a solitary occupation. However, more and more writers are teaming up to produce works, either under a single pseudonym, under both names of the authors, or under the name of a well-known writer “with” a supporting writer. The word "with" actually appears on the cover.

This is the first in a series of interviews featuring authors who have taken this team approach. Terrie Farley Moran, who recently teamed with Laura Childs, agreed to tell us about her experience of writing “with” a best-selling author.

About Terrie Farley Moran

Over a number of years, Terrie Farley Moran established an excellent reputation for her short stories, which have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and various anthologies. She has been short-listed twice for the annual Best American Mystery Stories.

When Terrie put her talents to writing a mystery novel, she hit her stride and won an Agatha for Best First Novel. I was thrilled to be at the Agatha Awards Dinner and hear the audience reaction to the announcement of her win.

This year, Terrie focused her talents on a different challenge—writing “with” best-selling author, Laura Childs. Their collaboration, “Parchment and Old Lace,” was released in October 2015. Since the concept of writing “with” another writer is a mystery to most of us, Terrie agreed to an interview about her experience.

Grace Topping

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

After years of writing short stories, you made the change to book-length mysteries and won an Agatha. Then recently, you took on another challenge, writing “with” bestselling author Laura Childs in her latest release, Parchment and Old Lace. How did the collaboration with Laura Childs come about?

Terrie Farley Moran
Grace, thanks so much for inviting me to visit with all our friends at Writers Who Kill. Well, let’s get right to it. I was blessed that someone at Berkley (our mutual publisher) asked Laura if she would read and potentially blurb Well Read, Then Dead, my first cozy mystery. I had no idea that Laura had read my novel until my editor sent me the blurb. Needless to say I was ecstatic. Shortly after the release of Well Read, Then Dead, my phone rang, and when I answered, a woman asked if she had reached Terrie Moran and when I said yes, she said “This is Laura Childs.” Fortunately I didn’t say, “Oh come on, is that you Grace Topping playing a trick on me?”

Laura told me that she was looking for someone to assist her in writing Parchment and Old Lace, which would be the next book (lucky 13) in her highly entertaining Scrapbooking Mystery Series set in New Orleans and featuring the witty and wise Carmela Bertrand. I jumped at the opportunity. But these things don’t just happen. Co-writing is a business arrangement. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t mention that the contract agreement involved agents and editors all the way.

What was it like writing with someone else, especially on a book in an existing series? Can you share some of the details?

Sure. Laura Childs is probably one of the most organized writers on Earth. She writes detailed outlines that are approximately a third of the length of the finished book. The outline includes snippets of conversations, notes about settings, food, personalities, wardrobe, etc. My job is to write each chapter according to the outline. Then I send the chapter to Laura who reads it, sometimes accepts it or sometimes sends it back for further work. Finally she edits and rewrites so that the finished product is definitely in her voice.

Are there different levels of participation when you write “with” another writer?

I’m sure there are, but Laura has done this before with other writers so she had a clear idea of how we would work. She was great at providing guidance.

What was the most challenging part of writing with a well-known bestselling author?

Writing is generally a solitary process. I think the challenge of writing with any partner is that consultation is frequently required. When writing on my own I can wander along and take twists and turns with the plot or the characters. That freedom is lacking in joint projects. Change requires consultation.

Was it an e-mail exchange, or do you live near each other?

We communicated by email and now and again by telephone. Laura and I have never met, although I hope we do someday.

What surprised you the most about the process?

There were no surprises. Writing is hard work. Writing as a team is still hard work.

How difficult was it to blend your writing style with Laura’s? Did you have to totally suppress your own style?

Well, it is not so much about suppressing my writing style as it is about my working to adapt Laura’s intimate knowledge of her characters: how they talk and how they think, what they would do in a given situation, etc.

Did you have to read all of Laura’s books in the series to become familiar with her characters and their histories? Or did she have some type of series bible?

Before Laura invited me to participate, I had already read four books from the Scrapbooking series. As soon as we discussed the possibility of working together, I read a couple more.

In writing Parchment and Old Lace, I found it extremely difficult to have to search through books to remember how to spell a character’s name (Ava Gruiex comes to mind) or which dog was the street rescue (that would be Poobah). For Crepe Factor I have the Style Sheet and the finished manuscript from Parchment so I can do a quick “find” to check my details.

What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that besides being exceptionally talented and creative Laura Childs plays well with others.

We are seeing more well established authors writing with other writers. For example, James Patterson writes with a number of writers, including Chris Grabenstein. What do you think accounts for this trend?

James Patterson has a long list of co-writers and I am delighted that Brendan DuBois has also recently signed to write with Patterson. (Just tossing that in there as something we can all look forward to.) You have to remember that publishing is a business. Many authors don’t want to abandon their existing series but have ideas for new work. If the publisher agrees and financial terms can be reached, a co-writer is often the solution.

Laura Childs is a perfect example. She writes three hugely successful series. The big news is that on July 5 Berkley will be releasing a thriller, Little Girl Gone by Gerry Schmitt, which is Laura’s real name. So that will be series number four. That’s a lot of writing each year.

Will you be writing with Laura Childs again or with another writer?

I am delighted to report that Laura asked me to write with her on the next Scrapbooking Mystery, Crepe Factor. We worked very hard and recently turned the completed manuscript in to her editor.

What advice would you give someone who is considering writing with an established writer?

It is a great honor to be asked to work with a writer who has a solid reputation and a long established body of work. When you are considering whether or not to accept the offer, it is important to realize that the person who asked for your assistance is the team leader and has an established style and story line that meets the readers' expectations. It is your job to follow along in that pattern.

What’s next for your “Read ’Em and Eat” mystery series? I hope we’ll see more of them.

As you mentioned earlier, Well Read, Then Dead won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Caught Read-Handed, the second book in the series, was very well received and continues to see brisk sales. Read to Death will be released on July 5, and I am very excited because besides taking a trip to the magnificent Edison and Ford Winter Estates, readers will get to meet Sassy and Bridgy’s moms. And while Bridgy’s mom is Aunt Ophie’s sister, they aren’t exactly peas in a pod. Think family friction!

And yes, Read to Death by Terrie Farley Moran and Little Girl Gone by Gerry Schmitt will be released by Berkley on exactly the same day. Celebration time! Both are available for pre-order now.

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

To learn more about Terrie Farley Moran and her books, visit her at

Parchment and Old Lace

Carmela couldn’t imagine a finer evening than dinner at Commander’s Palace with her beau, Detective Edgar Babcock. The food and the company are equally divine—with the exception of Isabelle Black stopping by to brag about her upcoming wedding. Resuming the romance with a walk in the evening air, the couple is interrupted once again—this time by a terrifying scream from inside the cemetery. Having just seen Isabelle, Carmela and Edgar now find her lying across an aboveground tomb, strangled to death with a piece of vintage lace. Carmela would rather leave the investigating to Edgar, but she can’t say no to Isabelle’s sister Ellie, the tarot card reader at Juju Voodoo, when she asks her to help. As she untangles the enemies of Isabelle’s past, Carmela hopes she can draw out the killer before someone else gets cold feet.

Well Read, Then Dead

Nestled in the barrier islands of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Fort Myers Beach is home to Mary “Sassy” Cabot and Bridget Mayfield—owners of the bookstore café, Read ’Em and Eat. But when they’re not dishing about books or serving up scones, Sassy and Bridgy are keeping tabs on hard-boiled murder. Read ’Em and Eat is known for its delicious breakfast and lunch treats, along with quite a colorful clientele. If it’s not Rowena Gustavson loudly debating the merits of the current book club selection, it’s Miss Augusta Maddox lecturing tourists on rumors of sunken treasure among the islands. It’s no wonder Sassy’s favorite is Delia Batson, a regular at the Emily Dickinson table. Augusta’s cousin and best friend Delia is painfully shy—which makes the news of her murder all the more shocking. No one is more distraught than Augusta, and Sassy wants to help any way she can. But Augusta doesn’t have time for sympathy. She wants Delia’s killer found—and she’s not taking no for an answer. Now Sassy is on the case, and she’d better act fast before there’s any more trouble in paradise.

Caught Read-Handed

Happy to help her fellow bibliophiles, Sassy visits the local library with book donations for their annual fundraising sale. Unfortunately, the welcoming readers’ haven is in turmoil as an argument erupts between an ornery patron and new staff member, Tanya Lipscombe—also known as “Tanya Trouble.” She may lack people skills, but everyone is shocked when she’s later found murdered in her own hot tub. The man last seen arguing with Tanya is soon arrested. But Alan Mersky, a veteran with PTSD, happens to be the brother of Sassy’s former boss—and he’s no murderer. Now it’s up to Sassy and Bridgy to clear Alan’s name and make sure the real killer gets booked.

Book descriptions obtained from

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pleased to Meet You!

I so honored and delighted to be making my debut here among Writers Who Kill. In the spirit of getting to know each other, I decided to share some of the things that make me who I am (as if that photo of me with a plastic orange assault rifle doesn't tell you enough).

1. Before I became a full-time mystery writer, I worked as a high school English teacher, a newspaper editor back in my tiny Southern hometown, a freshman composition instructor, and a professional Girl Scout. So believe me when I say that I understand homicidal tendencies.

2. I am also a tarot reader, although no longer professionally. I still enjoy reading for friends and family, however, and also for myself. And my characters. Boy, do my characters need guidance.
Book Five! Coming in April!

3. I currently write the Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries with Poisoned Pen Press (that's the cover to the next book in the series over there to the right). Tai runs a Kennesaw, Georgia, gun shop that caters to Civil War reenactors. Trey is a former SWAT sniper recovering from a TBI (a Traumatic Brain Injury). They are partners in both crime solving and romance, and as such, definitely need those tarot readings.

Haunted Savannah Streetlight
4. I live near Savannah, Georgia, reported to be one of the most haunted cities in the country. And though I've toured every haunted inn and restaurant and brew pub and restroom and tree and cemetery in town, I have yet to see a ghost.

5. I have, however, seen a UFO.

Baboons! How sweet, you say. Ha.
6. Also, I am one of the small subset of Americans who have been attacked by baboons.

7. I am an advanced open water scuba diver (wreck diving being my favorite, although my favorite dive of all time was a shark dive in the Bahamas. The baboons were scarier than those sharks.)

8. My redneck credentials are firmly established. I can shoot a shotgun, bake hoecake, catch a catfish with my bare hands, and drive a stick shift. I own chickens and overalls and cast iron skillets, and the Southern storytelling gene runs strong through my DNA. Even the pots and pans in my house have stories.

George getting ready to meet me
9. My bucket list includes going on an Alaskan cruise, bicycling through wine country in France, and meeting George Hamilton.

10. I once almost ran over Clint Eastwood. True story. His bodyguard probably still talks about that crazy redneck lady.

And that's me in a nutshell. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. Why don't you share something about yourself in the comments so that I can get to know you better? And thanks for stopping by!

Monday, January 25, 2016

With a Little Help from My Friends

by Linda Rodriguez

The last year or so has been difficult at times for me with major health problems and serious illnesses and deaths of relatives and close friends. I have managed to come through it and meet deadlines and keep commitments primarily because of my family and friends.

There were those who came by with casseroles while I was going through surgeries and some bad side effects of them. Some people even went to the trouble to send me food from far away. A student in one of my online classes, who’s become a good friend, sent me big coolers of frozen tamales from the best tamale place in Tucson twice just as I returned from hearing bad results on pathology tests. Others sent me lovely cheerful flowers and Amazon gift cards so I’d have something fun to read while going through the whole mess. I can’t begin to tell you how much such thoughtfulness means when the bottom has fallen out of your world.

I’m not a person who wants visitors when I’m sick or hurt. I’m like an animal who wants to curl up in my cave and heal all by myself, but the cards and emails and Facebook messages were encouraging and healing. I was truly grateful for all of them, even when I didn’t have the energy or strength to see anyone but my dear, patient husband and my youngest son, who arrived home from graduate school in time to help take care of Mom through the cancer surgeries and aftermath. What fun!

Then there were the folks who picked up the slack for me. Here on this blog and on the other group blog to which I belong, The Stiletto Gang, other members wrote substitute blogs, posted blogs for me, and took up a good chunk of my load. On The Stiletto Gang blog, I was the de facto blog administrator, and several good friends on the blog pitched in to help with those duties. Now, there are four of us admins, which is all for the best. On Writers Who Kill, our blog admin, Elaine, took over my blogging time while I couldn’t manage it, and the other members have been patient when I’ve not been able to give critique on all the blogs before they go out into the world. (Fortunately, everyone on this blog writes so well that they don’t ever need much editing.)

Because of the generosity of all these people, I’m still blogging on both group blogs, as well as my own, and I have come through the worst of times in pretty darn good shape. As I head into a year that I hope will be a much better, happier time, I find myself overcome with gratitude for all the good friends who stepped in to help—in one way or another—when I needed it most.

Like The Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.

When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.

Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Thief of Time

I had tons of ideas for a blog this month. I was going to write about life, writing, movies, and plays all using a three-act structure. I was going to write about how I plot and plan. I had a great idea about life imitating art and art imitating life. Then I thought about the end of Mad Men (which I just saw on DVD) and how the end didn’t live up to the rest of the show. I mean nobody’s real-life story line ends that neatly. Poor Betty.

So, what happened? Well, one thing led to another and then another and then life got in the way, you know how it does? After that, I don’t know. It just never happened. I kept hearing my third grade teacher’s voice whispering in my ear, and then shouting…”Procrastination is the thief of time.” However, I successfully pushed it into the background. Before I knew it, this blog was DUE.

While I was procrastinating, telling myself I have the blog in my head, all that’s left is putting the fingers to the keyboard, I decided to catch up on the news…I stumbled on an article in the New York Times. Turns out, procrastination is actually a good thing. In fact, it increases creativity. And best of all, they have studies to prove it. Okay, I didn’t think you’d believe me, but here’s the link. Check it out for yourself.

On reflection, it makes a lot of sense, although the increase in creativity feels more like a panic attack. Procrastination isn’t passive. It takes a lot of energy to decide not to do something. While you’re thinking about not thinking about it, your subconscious is chewing on it. It’s the same principle as getting great ideas in the shower, or on a run, or driving to and from work. Put your brain on autopilot and it churns out ideas, solutions, and answers. Sometimes totally unexpected ones. Procrastinating gives you permission to find creative solutions. Then, at the twenty-fifth second before the due date, limber up those fingers and stretch them out on the keyboard. If the theory holds, then this should be a great blog. I know it’s on a topic that hadn’t crossed my mind, until last night. And of course, the proof is in the New York Times. They’re never wrong…are they?

How about you? Is your style advance planning, or do you believe in the Hail Mary pass? Would you consider changing?

Friday, January 22, 2016


Portlandish by Warren Bull

Now we live in Portland, Oregon. As a newcomer there are a number of things I’ll have to get used to. When the plane landed in Portland, I heard the usual instructions such as, “Keep your seat belts fastened until we arrive at the gate and the seatbelt light goes off.” Then the stewardess added, “Keep Portland Weird.”

That is a local saying that the natives take seriously. At the baggage claim area I saw a scruffy older man wearing a skirt. It was definitely not a kilt. It was not a dress.  It was a mid-thigh length skirt. I didn’t question his choice of skirt length; he did not have shapely legs.

In the newspaper the forecast for the next six days indicated tomorrow would be, “Wet at times,” followed the next day by “Showers and Sun.”  Later in the week it predicted, “Partly Sunny” for two days. After that, “Rain Develops.”  And finally, “On and Off Showers.” I can guess the difference between partly sunny and the other days, but distinguishing between the other forecasts has me baffled. 

My wife lived here for a decade years ago, but she was not able to enlighten me about the differences between the forecasts. When I figure it out, I will let you know.

I have decided that since I live in Portland now I should adapt to the culture.  My sister, Peggy, pointed out that since Judy and I arrived here on Christmas Day, we have been in Portland for this entire year.  We came here last year.  That surely makes us residents.

I bought a knit cap when my ears felt like they were about to freeze and drop off.  Compared to what the well-dressed Oregonian wears, the cap is the wrong color and style.  It is neon blue, which is certainly an appropriate choice for hair, but a bit passé for caps. It is also thicker than most caps around here.  If the people at the coffee shop are models of current fashion (Why wouldn’t they be?) the cap should be worn all time indoors. I shelled out almost $3.00 to bring my headgear into compliance. I already had hiking boots. I bought a flannel checkered shirt and jeans to complete my native costume.  That added roughly another $15.00 to the tab.

In other Portlandish cultural matters, national ads depict attractive people who are neatly groomed.  Local ads show men with either full beards, or at least soul patches, whose hair resembles a haystack.  Women in local ads show a rainbow of hair colors beyond those provided by nature.  Clothing worn in local ads ranges from casual to street-person-chic.

My wife, Judy, advised me against dying my hair.  I could let it grow but since I have no hair on the top of my head and my hair is curly, I’m sure I would end up with a Bozo the Clown hairstyle. 

I saw a dry cleaner sign that said – Unemployed and have an interview?  We will clean one outfit for free.  Churches advertise their beliefs on signs outside their buildings such as Stop Global Warming and #Black Lives matter.  Cars stop for pedestrians, even when the cars have a green light.

Walking during a light rain, I saw two people using umbrellas and about forty people who did not bother.  

Ha! We residents can always pick out the tourists.