Friday, September 30, 2016

Greetings from South of Down Under by Warren Bull

Greetings from south of Down Under by Warren Bull

New Zealand is noted as one of the best places to live on earth. Kiwis have a knack for making things simple and sensible.  For example, the smallest coin is worth ten cents.  Think of the time and effort saved in counting out change.  For one and two dollars they have coins.  Much longer lasting than paper bills. The higher value the coin has, the larger it is.  Bills have a clear spot, which must make counterfeiting much more difficult.

I especially appreciate airports. When you land after too many hours in the air, in the terminal you see a sign that says “Start Here.” It is in fact where you start. What a concept.  Bins to dump fruit and vegetables that are not allowed in the country are called amnesty bins. You can keep your chocolate. I learned that too late.

Bus drivers are very helpful. One driver got off the bus to point out our destination. In the time I spent in New Zealand I saw one crabby driver. He was funny without meaning to be.
Election cycles are much shorter than in the states. The speeches I’ve heard were much more civil.  There is an election going on now, but the only way I know that is from reading billboards.
I’ve seen groups standing and chatting with members of all social classes together. You can’t tell a professor from a groundskeeper by their behavior or the company they keep.

Ps: The carrots here are delicious.

Where is your favorite non-US place?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

What Are We Afraid Of?

As mystery writers and for mystery readers, fear of some kind has to be included in a story or book, but as people not characters, what are we afraid of? What would really spook us if it happened? What do we worry about happening to us?
I once had a nightmare of a tiger roaming outside.

This might sound strange, but I’m not afraid of much of anything. Of course, if someone broke into my house with a gun, I’d be afraid, but I don’t worry about that happening. If a tiger escaped from the zoo, I’d be afraid if it was wandering around my house, but I don’t live near any zoo. If I lived in an area with cougars or grizzly bears, I’d be nervous walking by myself, but there are no cougars or grizzly bears in my area. I live alone with an extremely friendly collie. Would she protect me? I doubt it, although my niece’s husband, a cop, said even having a dog is a deterrent to burglars. I have nothing of value to a burglar, unless it’s a burglar interested in a thousand or more books. I only have cheap jewelry. I don’t keep much cash on hand. Of course, burglars don’t know that. I’m not totally clueless. Still, I live in a rural neighborhood with neighbors across the street and a son sort of next door, and I do keep my doors locked most of the time.

I think I don’t worry about things so much because my mother and grandmother never did, but then the newspapers weren’t filled with crimes then so much. At least I don’t think they were.

I got to thinking about something most people seem to be afraid of and that’s snakes. According to Clara Moskowitz on Live Science, March 3, 2008, “Fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias, yet many people have never seen a snake in person.” She claims that “New research suggests humans have evolved with an innate tendency to sense snakes – and spiders, too, - and tend to learn to fear them.” The article goes on with references to other articles on this. I’m wondering if part of it goes back to the Bible story of Adam and Eve, but probably not.

 As a young girl I used to catch snakes and chase boys with them. Once when I was quite young – and I don’t remember this – I caught a black and white snake and put it in the garbage can where it totally startled my father. Of course, we didn’t have poisonous snakes where we lived except for swamp rattlers in a low lying place at least twenty-five miles north of us, or so I heard. Mostly what was around where I lived were garter snakes or milk snakes or the occasional black snake which I don’t remember seeing any near where I lived. So snakes may startle me if they come out of the weeds, but I’m not afraid of them. Once I even had to fish one out from under the hot water heater when my then husband raced up the steps in a panic after spying a snake when he was getting ready to take a shower in the basement. I got the snake out, put it in a bag and took it outside to release it.

The first rattlesnake I saw outside of a zoo was on a backpacking trip in Pennsylvania with my sister Elaine. At first we thought it was a large branch stretched across a forest road. When we got closer we saw it was a large snake at least six feet long or longer with a huge bulge in the middle where it had swallowed something. We were both excited seeing it and walked closer to it. It lay still with its tongue going in and out as it tried to figure out who or what we were. We stood not too far from it and watched as it slowly glided into the large patch of ferns in the woods next to the road.

I saw another rattlesnake down on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah Valley National Park. It was a very hot day, and I was out of water and heading down the trail that went down to a stream at the base of the hill I was on. My sister and her son had gone ahead of me, and I came across her sitting on a boulder. She said we couldn’t go on because a rattlesnake was on the path ahead. I was hot and thirsty and wasn’t going to let that snake keep me from getting to water. So I walked ahead and stomped my feet and pounded my walking stick on the ground when I got within five or six feet from the snake lying across the narrow trail. Now snakes can’t hear, but they can feel vibrations, so the snake started shaking its rattles in warning, but I only pounded louder. I was not going to climb up the right side of the narrow trail or climb down the other side, either. Eventually, it gave in and slithered off the trail a short distance as I walked by followed by my sister.  (I recently learned from a fellow blogger that recent research shows that although they don’t have ears something inside does allow them to hear. I find that interesting.)

For a while after moving into the old farm house; I bought, I got milk snakes in my basement because the basement had a crawl space under part of it and there were spots where the foundation had gaps. They didn’t bother me because I rarely saw them, but once when my granddaughter and her friend were taking care of my critters and went to clean the litter boxes in the basement, they saw one on a beam overhead. It spooked them. I’ve since had any gaps in the foundation repaired. An interesting fact is that milk snakes feed on rodents, birds and other snakes, even rattlesnakes.

No, this wasn't the guy or the snake I held.

As a third grade teacher, several times we had someone come in with different animals including a python. Once when he asked, I agreed to let him put it over my shoulders, and only got a little nervous when it wrapped its bottom half a little tightly around my arm. Snakes are afraid of falling, and it was only trying to get a firm hold of something to keep from falling. The snake’s owner carefully unwound it from my arm. The man encouraged the children to touch the snake. Some wouldn’t but many did and were surprised that it didn’t feel slimy.

Several weeks ago I saw a garter snake beside my brick sidewalk in the garden bordering it under bird netting I’d put there to keep the rabbits from eating the begonias I’d planted. I ignored it and walked on. Much later when I saw it still there, I realized it was trapped so I got garden gloves, a pair of scissors and cut off as much of the bird netting as I could and then picked it up and sat on a garden bench with the snake on my lap and carefully cut as much of the netting as I could without cutting into its scales. It lay there quietly with its little tongue flicking in and out. When there was only a small bit still attached to it that I was afraid to cut any closer and risk cutting it, I put it under the bench. It lay there awhile and then slowly moved away.

 I found out the second thing most people are afraid of are spiders. Well, I wouldn’t want a big spider in my bed and don’t like them in my house, but I don’t freak out. I simply sweep it up with my sweeper. Otherwise outside I like to see them in their spider webs waiting for an insect to come along for dinner.  I taught a unit on arachnids to my third graders, too, and although some might have still been afraid of spiders most were fascinated by them. Once a college student from Hiram College; in the village where I taught, came to visit us and she brought a large pet tarantula in. She let it crawl on her hand, and I did, too. Only a few students did.

What do I fear and hate to see? Not bears. I saw a lot of those backpacking in Shenandoah National Park on the AT, and occasionally young male bears come into our area to escape from adult alpha male bears. I heard one once while walking and Maggie barked at it, but it was in the brush and left without me seeing it. The next day my daughter-in-law and great-granddaughter saw it by their house, and I had signs of it when every blueberry on my bushes disappeared one night.

No, not bears, but I hate rats. I’ve never had one in my house, but have had them in my barn. I’m not particularly afraid of them as much as I don’t like them and worry about one finding its way in my house.  I haven’t seen a rat in my barn for several years, and I’m glad of that.  In one of my short stories, I used rats as a way to cause the death of a not so nice person. The other third grade teacher in my school loved rats and let them crawl on her shoulder. She found them very friendly, but then they weren't barn rats.

What do you fear most?

If you’re a writer, have you used your fear in your stories or books?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Interview With Vickie Fee

by Grace Topping

It’s Your Party, Die If You Want To
by Vickie Fee

Between a riverboat gambler-theme engagement party and a murder mystery dinner for charity, Dixie, Tennessee, party planner Liv McKay is far too frenzied to feel festive. Add to the mix her duties at the annual businesswomen’s retreat and the antics of a celebrity ghost-hunting diva, and Liv’s schedule is turning out to be the scariest thing about this Halloween—especially when the ladies stumble across a dead body in a cemetery…

Morgan Robison was a party girl with a penchant for married men and stirring up a cauldron of drama. Any number of scorned wives or frightened philanderers could be behind her death. As Liv and her best friend, Di, set out to dig up the truth, they’ll face the unexpected and find their efforts hampered by a killer with one seriously haunting vendetta…  

Vickie Fee’s main character Liv McKay is a master at planning parties with unusual themes, and she makes it sound so easy. I love parties, but they are a lot of work—it’s far easier and more fun reading about them. Vickie Fee in her Liv and Di in Dixie series really delivers a fun time for everyone--well, almost everyone. As much fun as these parties sound, you may not want to be one of her invited guests. You could end up dead.

Welcome, Vickie, to Writers Who Kill.

It’s Your Party, Die If You Want To is the second book in your Liv and Di in Dixie series. How was it writing book two?  Easier or more challenging 

Vickie Fee

Both! I had the advantage of knowing I could actually write a publishable novel, because I’d done it before. It was also harder because this time around I had a real deadline.

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned going into Book 2?

Trust the characters, not the outline.

Liv’s party planning business is integral to your story. Why party planning? Did you have experience in this area before you started your series?

Party planning added the opportunity for some fun and funny stuff. I didn’t really have party planning experience in any formal sense. However, through the local Jaycees I was privy to the planning and details for some large community events. With my background as a newspaper reporter I’m good at research. And as a fiction writer I’m good at making stuff up. So I do a bit of research and let my imagination take it from there.

Liv’s clients are into some rather unusual party themes, such as the riverboat gambler engagement party. Have you actually seen any of these party themes used before? Do fans of your books send you party ideas?

I had seen casino type parties staged by non-profits as fundraisers. I like to add a Southern dimension or some local flavor to the parties Liv plans whenever I can, so the casino party took on a riverboat gambler theme. So far I’ve only had a couple of party suggestions sent in by readers, but I’d love to hear more!

Does writing about parties inspire you to throw some unusual ones of your own?

Mostly my husband and I just have friends over for dinner now and then. As far as parties, a couple of the “themed” ones we’ve done over the years included two Hawaii 5-0 parties for friends when they turned fifty—think fake leis, cheesy decorations, fruity drinks with little umbrellas, ham with pineapple, and something with coconut!

We also threw an X-Files party for the season premiere of that TV show one year for some of our friends who were as geeky about Mulder and Scully as we were. We put a big masking tape “X” on the front window with a lamp behind it, played trivia, and gave out candy cigarettes and little flashlights as party favors. Obviously, these parties were not quite up to Liv’s standards.

You give lots of good tips for throwing successful parties. What do you think is the most important thing for a successful function?

When you throw a party, relax and have fun. If the host is stressed out/not having fun, the guests won’t have a good time either. Even with Liv’s meticulous planning, surprises happen—and often those moments turn out to be the best part of the party.

Di is keeping a secret hidden from her on-again, off-again boyfriend, which hinders her relationship with him. Are we going to have to wait awhile for the secret to be revealed to him?

If readers can hang on until Book 3 (which comes out May 30), there’s a major development in that area!

In the first book in your series, Death Crashes the Party, Liv is already married. What does having her married offer your storyline?

Liv deals with a variety of crazy people and situations, so I think it’s healthy for her to have a stable relationship at home. As a married woman, I also refuse to believe single people are having all the fun! I think relationships between spouses, even long-married ones, can still be romantic and even sexy. Di’s relationship with Sheriff Dave offers plenty of complications, And, in this book, Liv and Di even dabble in a bit of matchmaking!

This book features a hometown native who returns home a TV sensation—but not a very likeable one. Tell us about her and what it says about how some people handle success?

Lucinda was a friend and college roommate to the very unlikable murder victim. Following college, Lucinda starts a ghost tour enterprise in Oxford, Mississippi, and lands her own ghost-hunting show on cable television. Celebrity goes straight to her head and she develops a reputation as a diva. But we learn Lucinda lost both her parents in an accident when she was quite young, and she seems, at least, grieved by her friend’s death. I think both of these things give the reader a bit of sympathy for an otherwise fairly unlikable character.

How is it going having to balance writing and promoting your books? Do you enjoy the promotion aspects?

Sitting at a computer writing and messing about on Facebook comes naturally to me as a nerd/introvert. Promoting my books was terrifying at first. But now I actually enjoy much of the promotional process. I think that’s in large part thanks to the kindness of other mystery authors, who are so generous. Those who host me on their blogs, like the gracious Grace Topping here on Writers Who Kill, those who answer my questions and offer advice, including the members of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And those like talented and delightful fellow author Peg Cochran, who is doing a joint signing with me at Barnes and Noble on her home turf in Grand Rapids in a couple of weeks. At my first library event I was crazy nervous, but the readers who turned out treated me like a celebrity! Experiences like these have made promoting the books less daunting for this awkward author.

Now that you have two books out, what have you learned that could help writers starting out?

Don’t worry about your process. There’s no wrong way to write a novel as long as the finished product is good. It’s okay to wonder/ask about the writing process of other authors. Just understand it’s not going to be your process.

What’s next for Liv and Di?

One Fete in the Grave, the third entry in the Liv and Di in Dixie series, will be released the end of May 2017 but is available now for pre-order.

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

To learn more about Vickie Fee and her books visit  Check your favorite bookseller for It’s Your Party, Die If You Want To and Death Crashes the Party.

The next book in Vickie’s series, Liv and Di in Dixie, is available now on for pre-order. Below is a description of what we can look forward to.

One Fete in the Grave

Party planner Liv McKay has outdone herself this time. She’s put together an unforgettable Fourth of July celebration for the town of Dixie, Tennessee—including breathtaking fireworks and an exciting Miss Dixie Beauty Pageant. Maybe a little too exciting.

As the party is winding down, Liv’s sense of triumph fizzles when the body of town councilman Bubba Rowland is discovered on the festival grounds. And now the prime suspect in his murder is Liv’s mother’s fiancé, Earl, who had a flare-up recently with Bubba. To clear Earl’s name, Liv and her best friend Di burst into action to smoke out the real killer before another life is extinguished…

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Care for an Adventure?

Do you remember those choose-your-adventure novels? Mine were all paperbacks that I kept in a stack in my reading corner. In those days before e-books and hypertext, I found the idea of one book containing multiple stories irresistible, especially since I was the protagonist.

My choices created the narrative. The most insignificant-seeming interaction could result in happily-ever-after or total nightmare, and so I bit my nails over every little A or B decision. Did I talk to the spooky old woman at the edge of the graveyard or pass her by? Take tennis lessons or go horseback riding? Visit the bell tower or explore the dusty attic? And the suspense! I would have closed my eyes and turned pages if I could have.

And so now I'm a writer. I'm at the helm of my own stories every step of the way (assuming my protagonists cooperate). And while I love immersing myself in the world of Tai's Confederate gun shop and Trey's corporate security firm, keeping them on track through multiple plot combinations and series-long character arcs is hard work. I miss those well-thumbed paperbacks!

And so now, in my fifth decade, I am discovering the world of online gaming. My teenager loves these immersive games, but I didn't really take them seriously until she convinced me to try the steampunky Fallen London, a darkly clever and smartly written adventure in a very Lovecraftian Victorian London. Fallen London is a browser game which can be played online on your computer or downloaded as an app for your phone. Either way, it's utterly addictive (and because it’s online, you can play with others who are also addicted—it's also free to play for the basic version). I am currently making my way through the Veilgarden, progressing nicely in my seduction of a charming jewel thief, and working on Ladybones Road with the Implacable Detective to solve the mystery of the Secret of the Face-Tailor. I've found a series of Compromising Documents and have an Infernal Contact (who may or may not be a devil) so I should be okay as long as the nightmares don't get me. Or the hell goat. Or my addiction to psychedelic honey.

Another great game is Oxenfree, a downloaded adventure that can be played from start to finish in a couple of hours. Once I got going, I was hooked immediately. Unlike the video games of my youth which were all spastic flash and bang, Oxenfree is languid and dreamy (until the possessions start, that is). With a muted nocturnal palette and subtly spooky soundtrack, it quickly immersed me in the narrative. Soon, I was making my way through a deserted ocean-side park at 3 AM, trying to save my friendships—and eventually my friends' lives—while battling a ghostly menace. Sometimes I had choices, sometimes I didn't, and sometimes my choices were fraught with disaster no matter what decision I made. Rich with backstory and character development, Oxenfree drew me into its unraveling, time-frayed world. I'm not sure I completely returned.

I still love my paper pages of course. Emily Dickinson was right—there is no frigate like a book. But I am discovering that game designers are creating some very intriguing stories in other mediums. Give one a try. And if you want meet me in Fallen London, head to the Singing Mandrake and ask for Maddusa. I may or may not be pawing through the reticule of an ambitious Artist's Model, looking for the scraps of Stolen Correspondence the wench filched from me in the House of Virtue.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Return to Musty Manor

by Shari Randall

So, the real estate gods did not smile on us. The new house we wanted to buy went to another lucky couple. Note to self: It’s not a good idea to try to purchase a new home when you are on vacation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from said house.

But the dear old beach cottage we’ve rented for the past year was available, so we’re back at Musty Manor. The grand old girl, built in 1915, a gorgeous money pit, didn’t sell over the summer. No complaints from me. Well, I could complain about the 50s era kitchen, the wonky doors, the peeling lead paint, and yes, the seaside aroma, but then I look out the front window and forget everything but the sailboats and the sunlight sparkling on the water.

Peace, thy name is Musty Manor.

Except for last night.

It’s been an unusually warm September, so we had the bedroom windows open. The crickets were slightly less annoying, winding down and packing up like the summer people who’ve already gone back home. The whistle buoy off Noank, which makes a sound less like a whistle and more like a husky moo, was doing its job, every ten seconds. Every. Bloody. Ten. Seconds. Just when I was considering the trade off of closed window vs. no whistle buoy, a different sound muscled in the window.

Shouting. Two voices, hoarse, words indistinct. I sat up and parted the blinds and squinted into the darkness. The beach was empty. Occasionally teenaged couples enjoy the moonlight there, but they’re usually quiet. I held my breath, straining to listen. One word became clear: Help.

Police lights - a sight you don't want to see near your house
I got up and threw on my robe. My husband awoke. I called the police. “Yep, we’ve gotten calls.” The dispatcher’s matter of fact tone was reassuring, but the voices outside were frantic. We hurried down to the beach. The shouts came from far out in the dark water, beyond the range of cellphone flashlights. Several neighbors hurried outside and word came down that two guys were heading out in kayaks, following the voices. “They’re coming!” we shouted into the dark. “Make some noise so they can find you.” We waved down the police car. He drove onto the beach, his spotlight cutting a gray slice across the water toward the voices but still we could see nothing.

EMS and a fire truck parked near the beach entrance and we retreated to the sidewalk. A neighbor in bare feet with a cardigan thrown over her pajamas introduced herself. This is how New Englanders meet: emergencies or snowstorms. Her husband launched his paddleboard and stroked out along the spotlight. “Kids,” she muttered. I didn’t think so. It was a school night and the deep voices sounded like they had graduated from high school years earlier.

More and more emergency workers crowded the beach – EMS, firefighters, police, volunteer firefighters. Headlights and blue and red light bars spotlighted backs straight in a poised waiting that was wisdom. The parade rest posture said they’d done this before. Save your energy. The water wasn’t that cold. The police boat would find them.

But then the shouting turned into gasps. I pulled my robe tighter. The green running lights of a police boat moved through the blackness, so dark I couldn’t discern water from sky.

“Make some noise!” The kayakers’ voices carried, along with the sound of splashing, then nothing. The silence and the dark seemed bigger than before, but then the green lights were heading toward the beach. Curt voices keyed on radios. People moved off the beach, making a path.

Two beefy, shirtless men in sopping shorts and sneakers walked under their own steam to the ambulance and settled inside. They moved a bit unsteadily, an unsteadiness that to me seemed the product of substances rather than the elements. Emergency vehicles eased away. Everyone exhaled. Quiet returned. The whistle buoy and crickets got back to work.

Honestly, it was a bit anticlimactic. I returned to my too warm bedroom, wondering how to pump up that beach rescue scene I’d started drafting in my head. Perhaps “a fireball roared off the yacht, the explosion rattling the windows of the sleepy old cottage….”

Has a real life event ever inspired a scene in your writing?