Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New Look

Yes, the blog looks different today. While I liked the look of my site when I first started blogging, it was starting to look tired to me recently. The image of cactus in the background didn't really show up and the colors were muted. Now, muted is okay, but I'm in a different mood right now. So, since I use Blogger and it's easy to change the look of a blog through a template, I picked another template. I'm not a fan of light text on a dark background, but I do like the red.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Countdown to NaNoWriMo

In less than a week the annual insanity that is NaNoWriMo begins. I've looked forward to this for months, a chance to start writing something new, something different, along with thousands of other people, young and old, around the globe.

I've been thinking about my NaNo novel throughout the month of October, even as I revise the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. Last Monday, after arriving home from my nephew's wedding in Virginia, I realized it was time to start planning in earnest. What I had so far was:
  • It is a mystery
  • It takes place at a retirement community
  • The amateur sleuth raises African violets
  • The victim claims my sleuth's new hybrid as her own (which provides a motive for my sleuth to be the killer)
  • The actual killer has a secret he wants to preserve
And that was pretty much it. When I came up with this series idea (each book based on a different color/hybrid of African violet) several years ago, I was excited because no one had ever done this. I had a hook that was perfect for a cozy mystery series, something Berkeley might grab up in a minute. The African Violet Society of America is the largest society devoted to a single indoor plant in the world. It seemed to me that this gave me a built-in audience of people who would want to buy my books.

But, as I started trying to come up with other suspects and motives this week, it felt like this was going to be just another formulaic cozy mystery. What had seemed like a novel (pun unintended) idea several years ago was now looking like the exact kind of book I've grown tired of reading. But I had looked forward to writing this book for so long, I couldn't abandon it now. Or could I?

Then an announcement arrived in my mailbox this week telling me the webinar about NaNo planning and pantsing was available, finally, after technical glitches messed up the original recording. I watched it this morning.



And you know what happened? This video reminded me that NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun.

For the past year, I've been obsessed with building a writing career. I've read a gazillion posts on how to be a successful self-published author, what kinds of promotion work, how you should be on Facebook and Twitter and Google+. How you should write short stories to publish in between novels so you don't lose your audience. How you need to be running a writing business. Set goals. Set deadlines.

Since my realistic Christian fiction mystery series is very much a niche market, I'd been thinking of the African violet series as more commercial, a chance to grow a larger audience. All I had to do was write a typical cozy mystery for NaNo. I'd been so obsessed with that idea, it's no wonder my muse has been balking at giving me anything to write about.

While listening to the video and making notes, I suddenly got a totally off-the-wall idea as to what would make this mystery different from every other cozy mystery on the virtual bookshelves at Amazon. And I liked it. I liked it so much that this may become not the African violet mystery series, but the magical realism mystery series.

And you know what? My muse likes it, too. She's tossing me all kinds of weird ideas to put into this novel, characters I hadn't thought of, possibilities for other stories to tell in this universe.

I've totally changed my mind about how I'm going to write this story. Instead of filling up Scrivener index cards with carefully plotted scenes, I'm going to be drawing maps and diagrams and doing character collages. I'm going to try to have my four major plot points before I start, but I may not. This is scary for a plotter. I'm severely left-brained, so taking that blind leap of faith that I can write a novel without all the detailed planning I so like to do is like walking a high wire without a net. But hopefully, if I fall off the wire, I'll find out I have wings.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Sand City Murders by M.K. Alexander


I was intrigued by the idea of a time-traveling detective, something new for me, so was eager to read this book. I mostly read mysteries, but have read my share of science fiction and am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, so I’m not new to time travel stories.

The book opens with rich descriptions of the characters and locations. This does, as one reviewer noted, make the opening slow, but the author does it so deftly, for the most part I didn’t find it a problem. The narrator is Patrick Jardel, senior reporter for the Chronicle, a local weekly newspaper, who is called to use his photographic skills to take pictures of a crime scene while the police photographer is on vacation. It is in this way that he gets involved with murders committed by what he initially calls the Barefoot Killer, since all the victims are without shoes. That is not the only thing they have in common; all the victims are young women, attractive, and, initially, unidentified.

Patrick’s unusual memory is what brings him into contact with Tractus Fynn. What makes it unusual is that he remembers when things were different from his current reality. Little things, things that you might attribute to a mistake in your recollection if they happened to you, but which Patrick knows are no mistake, but a change in the world. Fynn, the time-traveling detective, needs Patrick’s assistance because of his memory so he can know when time has changed in the one reality. It is Fynn who leads Patrick to discover that the murdered girls all disappeared in the mid-nineteen-seventies, only to mysteriously appear, dead, in the present.

At several points in the novel, Fynn attempts to explain to Patrick how time travel works. I found these difficult to follow. Fynn keeps repeating “It’s complicated” and, when Patrick tries to pin him down on some points, Fynn is evasive. That would be all right, if not for the fact that it happens too often and goes on for too long. I don’t think it’s totally necessary for the reader to understand all the details of how time travel works in order to enjoy the story.

***Spoiler Alert***
I usually don’t include spoilers in my reviews because I don’t like taking the chance that someone will read them and have the mystery spoiled for them. However, in this case I feel the need to divulge some things in order to explain why I gave this book three stars.

For a good part of the novel, Fynn and Patrick, along with Durban, a police officer, are trying to determine who the killer is. Then, unexpectedly, Fynn reveals that he knows the killer is one Mortimer, his arch-nemesis, who is another time traveler. It might be my aging memory, but I don’t remember any hints earlier in the book that this would be the case.

(As an aside, when Mortimer showed up, I immediately realized that the author had structured this story similar to Sherlock Holmes, with Mortimer being his Moriarity, and Patrick his Watson.)

Early on, in one of Fynn’s explanations of time travel, he describes what he calls “hard” and “soft” jumps. When you jump to the past, it’s a “soft” jump, because you’re reinhabiting a version of you that already exists. When you jump to the future, it’s a “hard” jump because you have to create a new instance of yourself since you don’t exist there yet. Then, when the identity of Mortimer is revealed, he explains that the way he’s been able to carry out these killings so successfully is that he can hard jump to the past, that there are multiple versions of himself throughout time.

[Rant] You can make up any set of rules you want for your world and I’ll most likely go along with them, but you may not change the rules in order to make your plot come out right. Story world must be consistent within the story. [End Rant]

There are ramifications to switching timelines, as Patrick refers to it. (Fynn insists there is only one timeline. It’s complicated.) Events change. People change. A person who was sullen in one timeline is cheerful in another. Minor characters change roles. Fynn undoes a murder. Mortimer redoes the murder. As the author himself states at the beginning of Chapter 33, “In Fynn’s world, any series of events was perfectly plausible.”

And that’s a big problem in a mystery. One of the pleasures of reading mysteries is trying to figure out whodunnit before the author reveals him or her. When people and events can change to this extent, that’s not playing fair with the reader. I gave up trying to figure it out about three-quarters of the way through the book.

Add to that the fact that Mortimer turns out to be a character we’ve never met in person in the rest of the book, and I couldn’t possibly give this book more than three stars.
***End Spoiler***

The book could have used one more pass through a copyeditor or proofreader. There weren’t horrendous errors and there weren’t a lot of them, but there were enough so that they were noticeable. These consisted of missing or extra words and misused words (clamor for clamber, gauss for gauze, ). And the ever-popular, but dead wrong use of “I” after “and” when it should be “me.”

The author is a competent writer. His descriptions of what happens at the newspaper are realistic, a reflection of his career as a reporter. One thing he nails is the distinctive dialogue for his characters, particularly Patrick and Fynn. You don’t need tags because the way they speak identifies them. Few authors do this so well. Both Patrick and Fynn are well-developed characters and I very much liked the town of Sand City. I would consider returning to it to see what happens in the next of this series.

Note: I received this book through the Goodreads Making Connections group in exchange for an unbiased review.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Questioning Believers


At the beginning of the service at my church, a member of the congregation reads a Welcome statement. Part of it says "Welcome to questioners, believers, and questioning believers." I'm in that third category.

Part of my return to faith journey has been trying to learn more about Christianity and Jesus's teachings. It's always been frustrating to me that there is so little written about this outside of the Bible. I know, there are those who are asking what more do we need, but let me explain.

We're used to having multiple sources for news in our everyday life. There's television and newspapers and the Internet and radio and Twitter and... well, you get the picture. No one source is totally unbiased or totally accurate. It's one of the reasons I listen to both a talk radio station that carries Fox News and the local public radio station. Surprisingly enough, I've often found Twitter to be the most timely, accurate source for breaking news. It can also be very wrong.

With Jesus, there is almost nothing outside the Gospels and some apocryphal writings. All of these were written years after he lived and all have a bias in that they were written as witness to Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.

The one authoritative source outside the religious writings comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian, but these are so brief all they do is confirm that Jesus lived. The third citation, which provides evidence for the crucifixion, has been questioned because it is possible that it was later altered by those who believed in Jesus as Messiah.

My minister, during his weekly Bible study, emphasizes that we have to understand the books of the Bible in their historical and sociological context. If you understand the audience, it's easier to understand the stories. Matthew and Mark were written for Jews and so they use references that were familiar to Jews. Luke, however, was writing for Gentiles, people who had no knowledge of the Torah or Jewish history and tradition. Because his audience was different, his stories are different. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets lived at different times in history and the issues they faced were different depending on their circumstances.

In an attempt to gain more knowledge, I recently borrowed Part 1 of Bart Ehrman's The Historical Jesus lecture series from the library. (It's much too expensive to buy.) This didn't help much. (And a warning: these are college class lectures with Ehrman standing at a podium, not a History Channel dramatization.) Ehrman basically analyzes what we can deduce as being historically true from the Gospels. This is limited information. But one lecture did tell me that there were many wandering acetic philosopher miracle workers in the Middle East at the time of Jesus. One, Appollonius of Tyana, also claimed resurrection.

Now, this isn't the only story of resurrection. In Egyptian myth, the god Osiris also dies and is resurrected. Put that together with the story in Matthew of Jesus's family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, and isn't it possible Jesus developed his mythology from hearing about Osiris?

Now, I'm not saying that these other stories are true or that the story of Jesus is not. What I am saying is that they are things to think about, facts that lead to questions. It doesn't help that the Bible is not entirely consistent. As many have said, you can prove just about anything with a quote from the Bible.

Parables are particularly difficult to interpret, at least for me. Part of this has to be that context. I'm not a First Century resident of the Holy Land, so I'm not coming to them from the same place as Jesus's original audience. Did he really mean for all his followers to give up all their possessions to follow him? If so, why do so many Christians live in houses and drive cars? A recent lesson had Jesus talking about how slaves were to be treated. Does that mean slavery is okay? Around the time of the Civil War, some slave owners said just that. See, lots of questions.

In my Community of Faith mysteries, my somewhat ironically named main character struggles with some of the same issues I do. In each book, she not only unravels a mystery, she also attempts to unravel an aspect of being a Christian that puzzles her. That's one of the reasons I call my genre realistic Christian fiction. The characters are not perfect. They sin, repent, and sin again. They not only question God, they get angry at him. They are searching. They are questioning believers.

Photo credits:
Open Bible: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rykneethling/5811680700/