The Best Laid Plans

Saturday, November 19, 2016
Sometimes, no matter how much resolve one summons, it’s impossible to follow through on a plan.

Last December, when I was setting my goals for 2016, I blithely assumed I’d write another 50,000 word draft of a mystery novel during NaNoWriMo. After all, I’d done it three years in a row, so why wouldn’t I be able to do it for a fourth year?

Life, that’s why.

After I published Royal Purple Murder, I sat up and looked around me. I’d been so wrapped up in launching the African Violet Club Mysteries, I’d pretty much neglected the house and yard. As it is with indie publishing, with a house you can either spend time or money. I didn’t have the money to hire a landscape service to maintain the yard or a cleaning service to maintain the house. Furthermore, I didn’t have the money to have the house painted inside and out, replace the worn carpeting, or think about new furniture.

My only option was to spend the time to do it myself—as much as possible. Painting the outside of the house wasn’t something I was ever going to tackle. But I’m not young any more, and a couple of hours weeding in the yard would often result in a couple of days with aching muscles and an arthritis flare-up, leaving me with no energy to keep on going.

I also realized I had enjoyed my months as a full-time author, where my first priority each day was to work on my novels, schedule promotions, study writing craft, and figure out how to design book covers and advertisements. It was what I really wanted to do with my life, not shampoo carpets or paint ceilings.

There was one solution: sell my house if I could and downsize into an apartment. I wasn’t even sure this was possible, but I had to try. So I spent a month of preparation, hiring those cleaning people and getting the yard weeded and decluttering to some degree. And then I called a real estate agent and asked what I could sell the house for. By this time, I would have been happy to leave the house debt-free. When she told me I could get more than I expected (although not as much as I’d paid for the house), I put it on the market.

There followed two months of showing the house, negotiating the offer, packing, looking for an apartment, and moving. I have been in my new location for a month now, and I still have boxes in my office and the living room. I haven’t hung pictures or done any decorating. And I’ve had multiple issues with the apartment and many visits from maintenance to resolve them.

But I thought I could still do NaNoWriMo this month. It turns out, I can’t. The outline has been a struggle. I have eight new characters (four of them suspects) who need to be fleshed out. I have at least two new locations that I’ve had to envision so I can describe them for my readers. I could easily spend two more months on preparation.

But I won’t. At least, not right away. I seem to reach a point in starting each novel where preparation isn’t enough. I have to start writing the story to know where it’s headed. I reached that point this week and wrote the second scene in the novel. It took me two days because I’m rusty. But I’ve got 1100 new words this week, and I’m comfortable with what I wrote.

That’s hardly NaNo speed, which is why I haven’t been posting my progress. With any luck, I’ll have the first draft done by the end of the year. Well, not luck, but work. And maybe next year I’ll be ready to write a NaNo novel again.

NaNoWriMo Days 3, 4, and Probably 5

Saturday, November 05, 2016
I'm still working on planning and outlining. I'm getting good ideas, but it's going to take a while to put a complete outline together. Tasks always take longer than I think they will.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Day 2

Wednesday, November 02, 2016
So this morning I hinted at what was going on with my NaNo novel. I decided I really needed to create at least a cursory outline in order to write this book. So I spent several hours brainstorming and making lists and looking at the story structure guidelines I've picked to use for this book.

Then I decided I needed to tackle some more boxes. I must be about at my limit of unpacking because after three boxes of kitchen stuff (which required climbing on the stepstool to put in overhead cabinets and bending over to put in the under-the-counter cabinets) my arthritic back was killing me. It hasn't hurt this bad in years.

So I took Aleve and sat in my recliner and read. Then it was time for the World Series (which is in a rain delay as I write this).

So a lot of explanation to say:

0 words written

NaNoWriMo Day 1

The first day and I forgot to finish it by posting my progress. LOL

1395 Words

This looks like I didn't do enough, but I set a schedule of writing only on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Tuesday has multiple Bible study classes and Sunday is church and a well-deserved day of rest. So, technically, I'm ahead, but I won't be. More on that tonight.

NaNoWriMo 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

In three days, the annual madness that is National Novel Writing Month will start. As I have for the past three years, this year I will be working on a novel in my African Violet Club mystery series. This will be the first original writing I’ve done in 2016 (other than blog posts) and it feels strange to say that.

Because I had the three AVC books in first draft form, my priority this year has been to revise and publish them. That’s what I did, but it left little time for writing new fiction. Okay, it left no time for writing new fiction. So this week I hunkered down in earnest to plan book four.

I heard the cogs in my brain screeching as they fought to break the binds of the accumulated rust. There was a period of time when I thought I might not be able to write another book. However, I know that Agatha Christie and Tess Gerritson each felt the same way before starting and that the only way to find out was to try, so I picked up my pen and notebook and started writing things down.

Yes, a pen and notebook.

While I write fiction easily by typing, generating ideas requires pen and paper. Writing by hand uses a different part of the brain than typing does, and it appears that part of my brain is where my muse lives. Any time I get stuck on writing a story, I’ve found it helps to walk away from my computer and sit with pen and paper. Ideas bubble up in my head and flow down my arm to my fingers which are happily scribbling almost illegible letters on the paper.

This year I’m going to attempt to keep a daily progress journal, a la Dean Wesley Smith. At the end of each day, I’m going to write a blog post updating how many words I’ve written, what other progress I’ve made on the novel (this morning I dummied up a cover for the book--yes, I know it looks like Pepto Bismol and needs work), and other activities of the day.

It might not make very interesting reading, but knowing I’m going to make this public will help me stay on track.

NaNoWriMo 2016

In three days, the annual madness that is National Novel Writing Month will start. As I have for the past three years, this year I will be working on a novel in my African Violet Club mystery series. This will be the first original writing I’ve done in 2016 (other than blog posts) and it feels strange to say that.

Because I had the three AVC books in first draft form, my priority this year has been to revise and publish them. That’s what I did, but it left little time for writing new fiction. Okay, it left no time for writing new fiction. So this week I hunkered down in earnest to plan book four.

I heard the cogs in my brain screeching as they fought to break the binds of the accumulated rust. There was a period of time when I thought I might not be able to write another book. However, I know that Agatha Christie and Tess Gerritson each felt the same way before starting and that the only way to find out was to try, so I picked up my pen and notebook and started writing things down.


How Not To Be A Writer

Saturday, October 08, 2016
I am a sucker for anything that sounds like it will make me a better writer. I love to read writing craft books. I love taking classes. And, lately, I find myself attending all kinds of free webinars, most of which exist because someone wants to sell you a course, but they often have a few nuggets of information that make them worthwhile.

The one I went to yesterday did not have a single nugget in it, unless it occurred during the last half of the presentation, because I decided I didn’t want to waste any more of my precious time.

This webinar seductively played on the myth of writer as author. Almost everyone wants to be an author. They have an idea for a book and long to be able to point to copies of this book on their shelves as they tell their friends and relatives, “In my book…” There’s some kind of cachet about being able to call yourself an author.

But very few people actually sit down and write the book, much less go through all the hard work that makes it something worth publishing so that other people will read it. They’ll talk about their book all the time as something they’re going to do “someday.” When they run into a published writer, they’ll suggest that they’ll tell the writer their idea for a book so the writer can write it. Then they’ll split the profits. What the wannabe author doesn’t realize is that ideas are easy. Writing a book is hard.

But that’s exactly where this webinar started. You can be an author. All you have to do is hire one of those writer people to write the book for you. Or, if you don’t have the money to do that, you might have to write it yourself. And this guru was perfectly willing to tell you how to do that.

It started out okay with the instruction to set up a writing time, a schedule. True. All writers know they’re more productive if they treat writing as a job. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You have to force it to show up by sitting at your computer every day and working.

But then it went off into LaLa Land. The next suggestions were all about creating the right environment. Find your special writing place. Set the thermostat to the proper temperature. Choose your writing music. Drink water. Eat healthy food.

These are things newbie writers—and sometimes old-timers as well—discuss endlessly. They post pictures of their writing space. They start long discussion threads on the best music to write to. However, they’re more likely to discuss what kind of coffee or tea they drink or what’s their favorite junk food reward than how many glasses of water they drink.

The thing is, none of that has anything to do with becoming a writer, much less an author. You can spend an awful lot of time setting up your perfect place to write or shuffling through iTunes or Spotify to create the perfect playlist and pretend it’s all part of becoming a writer.

It’s not.

All that stuff is throat-clearing, procrastinating on doing any actual writing.

The next section was on choosing the right writing tools. This included Scrivener (my favorite), Evernote, and learning multi-markdown. More throat-clearing.

You don’t need any fancy tools. You can write with a yellow pad and a pencil. You can use Word, which you most likely already own, or a simple text-editing program. You can make notes on index cards or the back of an envelope, if you still happen to have any of those around.

But again, you can spend a lot of time trying out different writing applications (and, if you post a question about what’s the best one to any writer’s forum or mailing list, you’ll get several suggestions and more of those long discussions), learning how to use them, then running through editing applications, mind-mapping applications, etc. I’ve been writing seriously for fifteen years and published six novels. I have never learned multi-markdown and doubt that I ever will.

When the presenter moved on to the idea of writing a book proposal, even if you wanted to write a novel, even if you intended to self-publish, I bailed.

If you want to be a writer—or an author—there’s only one thing you have to do. You have to write.

You don’t have to find the perfect place to do it. You just have to find a place. You don’t need a playlist. In fact, I prefer writing in silence. You don’t need to buy any writing tools. You can start with whatever application you own now.

The important thing is to start writing and keep writing. Some say you must write every day. I think you can set a schedule that includes days off, just like a real job. But you have to put words on paper or type them into your computer. You have to stop saying “someday” and start saying “today.”

Now, it just happens that now is the perfect time to get started. November is National Novel Writing Month, an event which was created for all those people who want to write a novel “someday.”

During NaNoWriMo, thousands of people all over the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Most of them have never tried to write a novel, so you won’t be alone. You’ll learn to form the habit of writing every day, of setting a goal and, hopefully, meeting it. You’ll learn that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. And, if you’re lucky, you might discover that your muse shows up on occasion and leads you into worlds of imagination you didn’t know existed.

So, if you want to be a writer—or even an author—click over to NaNoWriMo and join in the fun. Start writing.

Summer Hiatus

Saturday, August 27, 2016
I feel like I’m about to write a confession.

Dear Readers: It’s been two months since I posted a blog.

I hate making excuses. I believe in fulfilling commitments. When I started this blog, I made a commitment to myself that I would write a new post every two weeks, not every two months. Over the years, I’ve taken different tacks on what those posts have been.

At one time, I would post a book review once a month. That seemed useful, but it was also hard. To review a book means you have to read it, and my reading time has decreased as my writing time has increased. Then there was always the dilemma of what if I really didn’t like a book. I know the writers of many of the books I read, if not personally, at least in a casual, online way. I consider them colleagues, and some are friends. Writing a critical review can be hurtful, and that’s the last thing I want to be. Praising a book I don’t like is dishonest and not being helpful to readers. So I stopped reviewing books.

I’ve written about places I’ve visited, always interesting material. I haven’t had a vacation in a couple of years and haven’t gone any place special for a while. Even Nandi, the baby elephant, turned two this week, and it must be close to two years since I’ve been to the zoo to visit her.

I’ve written about writing, but there are so many other writers who know so much more about it than I do, I feel like a fraud trying to teach other writers about craft.

So I ran out of interesting things to say, and went back to what I do best: sitting quietly and observing.

This year has also been intense as far as writing goes. At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal of publishing the three African Violet Club mysteries for which I’d written first drafts, and writing at least one brand new novel to be published before the end of the year. “Royal Purple Murder,” the third in the series, is now finished and will be released on September 1st. I’ve done minimal planning on the fourth book. For one thing, I need a break. For another, some life events have intervened and I’ve used that break to focus on other priorities. But I’m really looking forward to getting started on the next book.

I’ve also become addicted to Facebook. Unlike a blog post, where it can take days for people to read it and few respond, Facebook posts get almost immediate feedback. It’s fun when it isn’t annoying, which in this election season, is more often than I care for. But it’s still more tempting in breaks from writing to jump on Facebook than to think about a new blog post.

Many authors have stopped blogging entirely for similar reasons. I haven’t decided to stop, but I am going to have to come up with a new focus for this blog if I’m continue writing it. The only point in continuing is if people read the words. Getting responses is also important. Otherwise, it’s like shouting down a well.

So I’m asking you what you would like to hear about? If you’ve read my blog in the past, what kinds of posts did you enjoy most? If you haven’t, what kinds of things interest you?

I’m truly interested in knowing.


The Shadow Life

Saturday, June 18, 2016

I’m currently reading Turning Pro by Stephen Pressfield. This is somewhat of a follow-up to his bestselling The War of Art.  Both books are about what keeps a writer from writing or an artist from drawing or a musician from performing. They’re about resistance, that tendency of creatives to find anything else to do except create art.

One of the things wannabe writers do is live a shadow life. Instead of actually writing, they go to writers groups, hang out on Facebook, buy yet another book on how to write, talk about the book they want to write, etc. Anything except actually putting words on paper or a computer screen.

M.C. Beaton has a character like this in her Agatha Raisin mystery series. Agatha’s next door neighbor and sometime love interest has been “writing a book” for years. But he never seems to make progress. Instead he has a cottage filled with research books.

The concept reminds me of myself in high school. I liked the kids who acted in the plays or played in the orchestra or worked on the yearbook or contributed to the literary magazine. We hung out together. But while they were actually working on those things, I was merely a hanger on. I was too shy to act onstage, even to volunteer to work backstage. I quit band in my senior year rather than working hard enough to be selected for the orchestra. I went to a few meetings of the yearbook staff, but didn’t do any work on the yearbook.

That behavior was classic resistance, the fear of failing, or, possibly, succeeding. This behavior followed me for a good portion of my adult life.

Convinced that I could never be a writer, I focused on my day job as a computer programmer. I loved learning and applying new techniques, solving business problems, seeing code I’d written do exactly what I intended. I told myself writing computer code was creative. It is, but not in the same way as writing is.

Even when I finally decided to pursue my dream of being a writer, I eased into it. I joined Sisters in Crime, went to writing conferences, bought a ton of writing craft books. I found some online writer groups to hang out with. And after five years, I still didn’t have a completed book. Again I watched other writers get agents, book contracts, be part of panels at those conferences. Meanwhile, I took out that book on weekends and fiddled with it some more.

More years passed and more life changes. I gave up on the first book and started a few others. I still went to writers groups and talked about writing. I was still living the shadow life of a wannabe writer.

As I grew older, the day job became much less satisfying. No one wants to hire an old programmer. They want the kids, the ones with the brand new skills, the ones who were willing to work 60-80 hour weeks. I was stuck in a job I hated. I wanted to retire. I wanted to write.

But I had niggling doubts still. Was I willing to take the steps to be a real writer or was I still a wannabe living a shadow life?

I decided I had to prove my desire to myself. No more excuses about lack of time or needing to recuperate after a tough week at work. After watching Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture , I knew all my excuses, all my walls, were there for a reason. So how willing was I to conquer those walls?

I promised myself that if I could finish a publishable book, I’d allow myself to retire. I got up early and made myself write. I stopped finding other things to do that let me be a shadow writer. And I did it. I finished the book.

Over the past three years, I had to conquer other fears. I had to screw up the courage to actually press that Publish button on Amazon for Faith, Hope, and Murder. And again for Shadow of Death. I had to learn to promote my work (I’m still not very good at this), to tell everyone I had a book for sale. I had to make myself write a few short stories, something I always tell myself is much harder than writing a novel. I had to keep writing new work and putting it out there, chancing the dreaded one-star reviews and criticisms.

I’m no longer living a shadow life. I’m a writer. Yes, I’m too often tempted to spend too much time on Facebook or email, which is why I need to read one of Steven Pressfield’s books on a regular basis. To remind me that writers write. They do the work.

You can see the latest result of this writing work in Blood Red Murder, the second in my African Violet Club Mysteries. It will be at the introductory price of 99 cents until the end of June.

And, on Monday, I’ll be back to work, revising the third in the series and planning on publishing that one in July. Because writing is what I do now. I’m no longer content with a shadow life.

Happy Book Day to Me!

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Well, not today. In the flurry of publishing and sending out the announcement to my newsletter subscribers (you are on my newsletter list, aren't you?), and posting to Facebook, I somehow missed making an announcement here that "True Blue Murder" has been released.

This is such a fun series to write, I plunged right into revisions for the second book, "Blood Red Murder." And I've already got ideas for the fourth book in the series and can't wait to get started on that one. But first I'll have to release Red (coming on or about June 15th) and "Royal Purple Murder" (coming in July).

As a reward to myself for releasing the book, I ordered more African violets from the Violet Barn. Unlike Lilliana, I am not an expert grower of African violets. I'm not entirely sure what I do wrong. Part of it is watering, to be sure. I find it hard to know exactly how often and how much to water. Supposedly you're not supposed to let them get too dry. And following that up with a soaking is supposed to be bad, too. But, strangely enough, I've had success with that kind of treatment--totally by accident--in the past.

Then there's light and fertilizer (how much? how often?) and grooming and repotting (again, how often?). The desert of Arizona presents another problem with its extremely dry air, especially this time of year. It's been so dry and my nose has been giving me such problems, I bought a second humidifier and put it in my office. But I haven't yet bought a humidifier for my plants. (Yes, Lilliana is smarter than I am about that.)

Anyway, over time I lost a lot of my plants. It seemed as if one day they were thriving, and the next they were dried up shells of their former selves. So, while I've also had some success starting new plants from leaves, I had fewer African violets than when I started. I decided I was entitled to buy some new ones, in new colors, to inspire new books.

When they arrived, it was like Christmas! One even had two pink blooms on it. I've got them in quarantine while I make sure they didn't arrived with any passengers. I've never received plants from the Violet Barn that were infested with pests, but better safe than sorry. I'm already looking at another lighted plant stand and trying to figure out if I can fit that purchase in my budget.

Although it will take months for my baby plants to adapt to Arizona and their new environment, I'm already imagining them covered with blossoms. It makes me smile every time I look at them. Which is why I grow African violets. Because everyone needs more smiles in their life.

The Loss of Belief

Saturday, May 21, 2016
Last month, a story from National Geographic came up in my Twitter feed that gave me pause. The line said “The World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion.” Churches have noticed this trend unknowingly by seeing membership decline and attendance dwindle. What might have been perceived as an organizational or local problem is actually a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2014, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made a big media splash, a one-day wonder, with the announcement that there is no God. His belief is that science can explain everything. He even made the statement that “we would know everything that God would know,” which sounds suspiciously like the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Religion used to form the core of a person’s life. It defined their place in the world, had established rituals for life events like birth, puberty, marriage, and death. It united society with a sense of morals and traditions and customs. It defined right and wrong, what was acceptable and what was not. A secular world substitutes laws for values, certificates for ceremonies.

I understand how this came about. It’s hard to understand the teachings of an itinerant preacher of the first century, or the leader of a people who received a set of stone tablets that defined God’s law before that. Our world has expanded, and we learned of cultures that weren’t Judeo-Christian, that had a very different set of beliefs about God than ours. The idea of a heaven in the clouds makes no sense when we send men to the moon. Scientists make pronouncements filled with math and logic about their amazing discoveries, things that are nowhere mentioned in the Bible or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita.

On a day to day basis, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference whether we believe in God or not.

Or does it?

Joseph Campbell, in his classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” describes many myths and religions throughout the world. It appears as if, no matter what the specific belief system, there are certain stories that are universal. How could these stories from so many places and so many times be the same when the peoples who told (and tell) them are isolated from one another?

And how do you explain that sense of “the other” that some of us have experienced?

I believe that there are two ways of knowing truth: the scientific and the mystical. Science provides what we need to build cities and roads and power plants. It can take us across the ocean or, one day, to Mars. It’s easy to experience. It’s composed of what we can see and touch. (Except theoretical physics, which often seems like magic to me, but those revered scientists seem to be able to explain it to one another, so I’ll take their word for it.) The experience of it is repeatable. If I drop a ball, it’s going to fall down every single time. (Barring other influencing factors, but you know what I mean.)

The mystical is harder. For one thing, it’s not out there. It’s inside you. Most of the time, you can’t point to it or pick it up in your hands. If a doubter says, “Show me God—or spirit or a miracle,” a challenge Jesus faced often, a believer will try to explain how the doubter needs to see. But since the whole method is different than the way science teaches us to see, the doubter has an impossible time understanding and so concludes that the believer is delusional.

Because the mystical is not experienced with the senses, but with the spirit or soul, it requires quiet. You can’t experience it with the television on or in a lecture or driving to work. You have to calm your thoughts, something that’s very difficult for me to do. I have hamster brain. If the world is quiet around me, my brain runs on a wheel, pulling up worries and old memories or lists of all the things I should be doing. It’s hard to listen for the other.

There are techniques to quiet conscious thought. Meditation, with the chanting of a mantra that drowns out the hamster, can work. Walking a labyrinth, which requires focusing on the next step and slows you down to a measured pace, works for me. Music—not rock and roll or jazz or country, but something like Gregorian chants—can also fill the mind with quiet. Even today’s latest fad of adult coloring books has somewhat of the same effect.

If you think about today’s world, it’s rarely quiet. And we rarely spend time with ourselves. Even when alone, we’re texting or following Twitter or doing something else with our phones or iPads. There’s a racket of mental noise.

But in the quiet, you can sometimes glimpse God.

I can hear the doubters mocking that statement. But how do you explain places like Iona or Rosslyn, which have been sacred to different religions through time? Or Jerusalem, sacred to three major religions? These places are often described as being where the veil between worlds is thin.

I used to go to a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, a religion which doesn’t even think you have to believe in God to belong. It was an old building, and it stood on a hill above the town. The first time I walked inside, I got a sense of “presence.” I immediately knew I was standing on holy ground. It is another of those thin places.

And how do you explain that personal experience of the other by perfectly sane people?

I know a lot of evil has been committed in the name of religion. It’s not something to be proud of. But I also think humanity experiences a great loss when it ignores the mystical. The loss is something I mourn.

400 Years of Shakespeare

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Today marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. This event has been marked by year-long celebrations in the appropriate places. We’re not sure of his birthday because four hundred years ago that wasn’t necessarily written down. Instead what we know is the date of his baptism, which happens to be April 26, 1564. Before the days of issuing birth certificates and Social Security Numbers before an infant left the hospital, a baptism was a much more significant life event than the birth. While we don’t know the exact date he was born, traditionally his birthday has been celebrated on April 23rd, the same as his death.

I first encountered Shakespeare when I was in what was then called junior high. This was roughly equivalent to middle school, for those of you too young to remember the term. I had an absolutely fabulous English teacher, Frank Aversano, who loved Shakespeare. I think we read five or six plays over the course of that year. Mr. Aversano was an excellent teacher, full of knowledge about Elizabethan times, and willing to explain all the obscure references so that we got the jokes. So many people think of Shakespeare as dry and boring, but he was actually quite funny—and bawdy.

Not too long after, I got to attend a performance of Julius Caesar at the theater in Stratford, Connecticut. Having read the play with Mr. Aversano, I found seeing it an enlightening experience. I’m fairly certain it was my first live play, but I also saw a few plays in Manhattan with my friends in that timeframe.

One of the places marking this quadricentennial anniversary is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust , which of course, is located in Stratford on Avon in the United Kingdom. This organization maintains five historical sites, homes related to Shakespeare and his family, along with artifacts and manuscripts from the time period. Late last year, along with the University of Warwick, they offered a free course at FutureLearn titled Shakespeare and His World.

This class included videos which again put the plays in historical context and illustrated references with some of the artifacts from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. Each week also included a “focus play,” which allowed me to revisit old friends and meet new ones, other plays I hadn’t read before.

Again, the stars aligned to allow me to see the performance of another play during this time, this time Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, I’m a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan thanks to Sherlock on PBS, so that certainly was a primary draw for me. But I also would have wanted to see the play, even without one of my favorite actors as the star.

The primary takeaway from this for me was a reminder that the plays are meant to be seen, not read. While Shakespeare’s words are poetic and often memorable (you’d be surprised how many common sayings come from his plays), the stories take on a whole other level of enjoyment when you experience them the way they were meant to be seen.

While there were many years between my Shakespeare classes in junior high and watching Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in a movie theater in Tucson, my experiences with Shakespeare have stayed with me all that time. When I was developing my new senior sleuth, Lilliana Wentworth, I decided she would be a Shakespeare fan and think of brief quotes at opportune moments. Originally she was a retired English teacher instead of a librarian, a kind of female Mr. Aversano, and I’ve used some of my memories of what he told us so many years ago as things Lilliana thinks or says.

It’s interesting, the way certain things, certain themes, weave themselves through a lifetime. There are lots of things from my childhood, things I think I’ve forgotten about, which became a whole lot less important during the middle years of my life, that are finding their way back into it now. And into my stories. Because writing fiction is just taking bits of who you are and rearranging them so they entertain someone else.

I Just Can't Write Normal

Saturday, March 26, 2016
When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to write stories like the ones I read. My favorite year of school ever was sixth grade, because we had to turn in a new short story every Friday for a good part of the year. At that time I was reading science fiction, horse stories, and some of the classics. Now, back then you couldn’t admit to reading science fiction, much less writing it, so I never wrote any sci fi stories for my homework. But I envisioned myself writing those stories some time in the future, just like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The same with mysteries. Although I read Nancy Drew and Ellery Queen, I didn’t write mysteries, either.

I don’t remember what those grade school stories were, which is too bad. The only one I do remember was a rip-off of Jack London. I’d read “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” as well as To Build a Fire (still one of my favorite stories) so it was natural that when it came time to write the next story, I would be writing about a semi-wild dog trekking through the snowy wilderness. When I turned it in, I felt a twinge of guilt, and half expected to get a failing grade because it was so obvious what its origins were. I was surprised when I got an “A” on it. I always felt that grade was unearned.

In the past, I’ve written about my decades-long hiatus from writing. Maybe that was necessary for me to become the writer I am today. Maybe not. Regardless, there’s nothing I can do to change that now.

When I came back to writing, my taste in reading had changed from science fiction to mystery. SF had disappointed me when it changed from “hard” science fiction to what I called psychological stories. Instead of a story turning on one or more scientific facts, or a group of young people jumping into a space ship and exploring the galaxy, SF became more character-based, even more about social issues. Not my cup of tea at that time, so I started reading stories that were puzzles I could try to figure out.

Stephen King said, when asked how you become a writer, “Read a lot. Write a lot.” Countless others have said, “Write what you know.” Since I was reading mysteries when I decided I wanted to write a novel, it was clear that I would first try writing a mystery.

So I did.

It was a long slog (which I’ve written about before), and I revised and rewrote that novel several times over many years before I figured out that it was unfixable. It was my “under the bed” or “trunk” novel, the one (and often more than one) which the writer uses to learn her craft, but is so fundamentally flawed that it will never be publishable. I took classes, joined Sisters in Crime, read books on writing craft, and wrote a few more novels. I almost despaired of ever writing a complete novel that was any good.

But I persevered because I had set a goal of completing a novel and having it published before I died. I’m the kind of person who, once she makes a commitment, sticks to it. Sometimes long after I’ve figured out there’s really no need to fulfill that commitment. I got better at telling stories, better at avoiding rookie mistakes, better at coming up with ideas. And a lot of that was due to trying to write a novel just like the ones I read.

When I came up with the idea for “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” I knew it was something special, even though I thought I was creating another novel just like the ones I was reading. Well, not quite. I hadn’t read very much Christian fiction, but I assumed it would be similar to the book I was writing.

After the first draft was done, I knew I should find out what the Christian fiction market was like. I’d learned a ton about mysteries from Sisters in Crime, so I found a Christian fiction writers group and joined that. It didn’t take very long for me to discover that the books they were writing were very different from mine. Not knowing the “rules” of the genre, I’d broken several of them in my book. I decided to publish it anyway.

“Faith, Hope, and Murder” has gotten good reviews and bad reviews. Enough people liked it for me to keep going with my Community of Faith mystery series. But it’s never become a big seller and, because I wanted to earn money from my writing, not spend money on a hobby, I decided to write something a little more commercial, a series not so far out of the box.

That’s how the African Violet Club Mysteries were born. I came up with the hobby of growing African violets as the hook for the series, a senior sleuth I knew I’d have fun writing, and a general feeling that I’d write novels similar to the Murder, She Wrote series and Miss Marple. A nice, standard genre. I felt very comfortable that this would be a series that I could sell.

Then I started writing “True Blue Murder.”

Now, I outline my novels because I get nervous about not knowing how the story develops. I’ve tried writing by-the-seat-of-the-pants with very mixed results. Sometimes the story flows smoothly. All too often, I get stuck, panic, and have to abandon the novel because it’s so bad.

But the outline is for the mystery plot. I know who gets killed and who the murderer is, the major scenes, and, with any luck, the clue that reveals whodunnit to my sleuth. This sometimes changes as I write, but I’ve got a roadmap to follow so I won’t get lost and panic.

The subplots are a lot less clear. I’ll have some vague idea as to what they are—the romance between Faith and John in the Community of Faith series for example—but the details come to me as I’m typing. Actually, these subplots are often more fun to write, because I’m not worrying about hiding clues and yet being fair to the reader while writing them.

So there I was in November of 2013, tootling through “True Blue Murder” as my NaNoWriMo novel that year, over half-way done with the book and feeling mighty good about it, if I do say so myself, when my muse threw me the ultimate curve ball.

I finished the scene, then sat back and said, “What the…”

This book was not going to be like Agatha Christie. Well, it was, but Dame Agatha would never have added a fantasy element to her mystery novels.

I liked it, but would readers? And how did this fit into my plan of writing a traditional mystery series that would sell?

I did what I always do when faced with a writing dilemma: I consulted my fellow Sisters in Crime members. Everyone told me to go for it. So I did. In fact, that element has become a subplot in the two sequels as well. I think it adds fun to the series, even if it is a bit unconventional. Okay, a lot unconventional.

Who wants to be normal anyway?

If you’d like to read the first two chapters of “True Blue Murder,” check out my Kindle Scout campaign at . If you like it, please consider nominating it. Thanks!

Exciting Announcement

Sunday, March 20, 2016

If you've been following along on my blog, you know that I've been working on the first book of a new series. I first wrote about where I got the idea for this series. More recently I described my new amateur sleuth, Lilliana Wentworth.

I've recently given hints about something special for my new series, but haven't been able to say anything specific until now. True Blue Murder, the first in my African Violet Club Mysteries series, has been accepted for a Kindle Scout campaign!

My Campaign

If you're not familiar with Kindle Scout, it's an Amazon program where readers get to help select books that Amazon will publish. As you can understand, this is a really big deal. The way it works is that an author submits the manuscript of the book, along with a cover, description, and other supporting material. If it passes Amazon's review, it becomes a campaign, where readers can see this information and read a sample. In my case, the sample is the first two chapters of "True Blue Murder."

If a reader likes what they see, they can "nominate" the ebook to be published by Amazon. You're only allowed to nominate three books at a time, and a campaign only lasts thirty days, so there's a fierce competition among the submissions.

So what's in it for you? If you nominate my book and it gets selected for publication, you get a FREE copy of True Blue Murder when the book is published.

If you've got a minute, please take a look at my Kindle Scout Campaign for True Blue Murder and, if you like what you see, nominate it!

Click Here to Go To Kindle Scout


Who Is Lilliana Wentworth?

Monday, February 22, 2016
In my last post, I wrote about how I got the idea for my African Violet Club Mystery series. Now I had to come up with my sleuth.

Since my retirement, I’ve been spending more time with senior citizens. I still have a hard time thinking of myself as one, but I suppose once you start collecting Social Security, it’s time to admit you’re no longer middle aged. While most of us have our share of aches and pains, we no longer spend our days knitting on the porch. People well into their seventies and eighties drive, volunteer at the food pantry and various museums and parks around town, hike, play golf, and sometimes even find new jobs.  In other words, Miss Marple in an easy chair wasn’t going to be my role model.

I’ve also done enough writing by now so my main character doesn’t have to be largely a clone of myself. I’ve learned how to get inside the heads of other types of people, see the world from a different perspective than my own. And I definitely wanted to distinguish my new senior sleuth from Faith Andersen, the thirty-something who’s the heroine of my Community of Faith mysteries.

Because I like books and literary references, and I didn’t want my sleuth to be a retired English teacher like Jessica Fletcher, I decided the perfect former occupation would be librarian. Librarians love books, but today’s librarians also have to be tech savvy, assist with computers and homework help, organize community events, and help patrons locate movies and music as well as books.

Since I had recently been revisiting Shakespeare’s plays (yes, largely inspired by seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and loving it), I thought she should also like Shakespeare. I remembered a high school teacher I had, the one who introduced me to Shakespeare, who reread all of the plays over every summer vacation. So I’ve incorporated elements of that teacher into my sleuth’s character as well.

For a change, I decided that rather than battling overweight, my sleuth would be one of those seniors who is no longer very interested in eating. She has a hard time putting weight on rather than taking it off.

And, of course, she’s obsessed with growing African violets. I have to confess that, while I like raising a few plants, I struggle to keep my African violets healthy. I used to say I had a black thumb. I’m not sure that’s true, but I’m not interested in growing lots of plants or showing them. I love having a few, especially when they’re blooming, to cheer up a room. But I’ve met several senior citizens who are obsessed.

I have too many books. Even when I donate some to the Friends of the Library, I soon fill up the empty shelf space with more books. African violet fanciers have hundreds of plants. They give them away, sell them at shows, donate them to raffles at the local meeting. But they order more plants, root more leaves, and can’t resist accepting a new hybrid from a friend.

As I’ve written the books, I’ve discovered more about Lilliana Wentworth than what I originally came up with. At least consciously. Broadway show tunes play a featured part in the third book in the series. I was delighted to discover a Broadway show reference in the first book when I went back to edit. Apparently Lilliana knew what was coming, even if I didn’t.

I think that’s enough for now. I’m sure we’ll all discover more about Lilliana Wentworth as the series progresses.

Good News for iBooks, Kobo, and Nook Readers

Saturday, February 06, 2016
My Community of Faith mystery series is now available for iBooks, Kobo, and Nook as well as Amazon! Click on the tab above for direct links to the books.

Ma's Crime Scene

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. This puzzles most writers, because the problem is not coming up with ideas; the problem is finding the time to turn them all into stories.

Harlan Ellison, when asked the question, famously answered:
There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.

Of course, there is no such service. Ellison was responding to the absurdity (for him) of the question. Ideas are all around us. What you have to do is notice them.

The idea for my African Violet Club mysteries started percolating years ago. Periodically I’ve grown African violets, sometimes with more enthusiasm than others. While relatively easy to grow, you do have to pay attention to how much water to give them, when to fertilize (and how much), and placing them in a spot where they’ll get sufficient—but not too much—light. Growing show-worthy plants requires a whole different level of expertise. But they’re so pretty, and there’s nothing like an African violet in bloom to brighten a dreary winter day.

So, in one of my early ventures into raising African violets, I was browsing through a catalog from The Violet Barn, a grower I’d seen as recommended for quality plants, when I stumbled upon a hybrid called Ma’s Crime Scene, described as “So red, it’s criminal.”

My pulse quickened. This, for a mystery writer, was the equivalent of being hit over the head with an idea. Cozy mysteries often have a craft or hobby as a hook into the stories. But there are already so many with food or books or quilting or antiques or you-name-it as an interest, it’s hard to come up with something new. I didn’t remember there being a series featuring African violets. I searched. There wasn’t. (Still wasn’t the last time I looked for one.) What a fabulous ideas for a mystery series!

Of course, it takes more than a hobby to make a story. Orson Scott Card in “Characters & Viewpoint”  talks about needing two ideas to rub together to come up with a story premise. I had one. Meanwhile, I had lots of ideas for other stories and worked on those. It was only once I retired that I came up with two other ideas to rub up against this one.

While I was working, my latest attempt at growing African violets had failed due to the intense curiosity of Agatha and Spenser, my two cats. Agatha in particular found the plants at least as intriguing as I did. On a daily basis, I’d come home to a plant knocked over on the floor, spilled out of its pot, with dirt decorating the rug. While resilient, African violets can only take so much abuse. But in retirement I thought I’d be able to thwart this behavior, so ordered five new plants from The Violet Barn.

I also decided to join the Tucson chapter of the African Violet Society of America. I thought I could use some pointers on growing better plants. I also thought it would be an opportunity to meet new people. One of the things I have to guard against is isolating, since I enjoy spending time alone. Getting involved with various groups is my way of forcing myself out and interacting with other people. Because I don’t want to turn into the crazy cat lady.

Interestingly enough, the African Violet Society meets in a retirement home. Few—if any—of the members live there, but most are senior citizens. The location exposed me to what a retirement home is like, how residents live in separate apartments, that there was a dining room for meals, and that there are all kinds of activities and outings for the residents to take part in.

To me, the retirement home resembled nothing so much as a dormitory when I went to college. It was a kind of self-contained world, with people moving in and moving out, its own secrets and intrigues and alliances. I’ve always loved Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher. What if my sleuth was a resident in a retirement home? I loved that idea.

I still had one problem.

There’s a reason cozy mysteries usually take place in small towns. As I’d discovered when writing my Community of Faith series, which takes place in Tucson, it’s difficult to come up with a justification as to why an amateur sleuth would be better at solving a crime than the police. The Tucson Police Department is a sophisticated operation, as is the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. So it appeared as if I’d need to move the retirement home outside of Tucson and create my own fictional small town.

But, unlike Massachusetts, where almost every town and village has a police department, in Arizona smaller places are usually served by a sheriff’s department. Would it be believable that a small town here would have its own law enforcement?

Google is your friend. I did some searching and came up with one small town with its own police. I wondered why the exception. It happens to be near a mining town and—totally making things up—I theorized that the mining company had wanted it there and exerted influence to make it happen. Which gave me another idea as to why my small town would have its own police department.

So those are the three ideas that came together to form the basis of my African Violet Club mystery series. I still had a lot of work to do: a lot of character development, details on what the town was like, who my victims would be, etc. But those are details. I’ll be back with more posts on how I wrote this series to tell you about those.

Watch for True Blue Murder, the first in my African Violet Club mysteries, coming Spring, 2016. If you want to be notified of the release date, sign up for my mailing list

Living in an ADHD World

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Our whole society seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder. People can’t just focus on one thing at a time. Live-tweeting by cast members and fans while a television show is airing has become a “thing.” You go out to dinner, and people prop up their cell phones on the table, paying more attention to text messages and tweets and Facebook than the people they’re sharing a meal with. If you question them, they say they’re “multitasking.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but there’s really no such thing as multitasking. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. What people call multitasking is actually switching between one thing and another thing, sometimes as many as four or five things, in succession, not doing several things simultaneously.

There are multiple studies proving this, so many I had a hard time picking a limited number of articles to link to. See , , .

I was dismayed when, while watching a program on the local public television station, the bottom of the screen displayed those annoying pop-up and animated messages just like the commercial stations have been using for years. If you’re watching those bottom-of-the-screen promos, you’re not focusing on the program they’re running now. I miss dialogue or plot points in the current program because they’re so eager to make sure you know what the next program is going to be. Which is why I’ve mostly stopped watching commercial television. I stream Netflix or Amazon Prime Video so I can focus on the story I’ve decided to watch.

There’s a phenomenon known as enhanced ebooks where, in addition to the text, the author can add embedded videos, links to other content, and background music. When I’m reading, I like to be immersed in the story. A good story develops a link between the text and my brain, and it’s hard to tell where more of the story is taking place. With distractions like videos and music, I can’t get the same level of immersion. My brain is busy jumping around from one thing to the other.

This week I was scratching my head as I read a message from the pastor in the church newsletter. The topic was spreading the word about the church in order to attract others to it. And, right in the middle of his list there was the suggestion to send messages to Twitter and/or Facebook about being in church and what you were doing at the moment. Let your Facebook friends know you were listening to the sermon and ask them what they were doing now.

So, instead of paying attention to the message in the sermon or singing the hymns or praise music, you’re focused on social media. Chances are there will be cat videos to watch on Facebook or retweets of another author’s free book promotion, neither of which have anything to do with worship.

When I questioned that tactic, a member of the Bible study group said in his son’s church, the members of the congregation text questions to the pastor about the sermon during the service. And my pastor said this social media involvement is being done in churches all over and he’s one of the last to promote the practice.

I hate this “Squirrel!” mentality. I find the whole jumping from one thing to another and back again stressful. Instead of absorbing and enjoying one thing at a time, there’s a whole catch-up thing my brain has to do when it switches from one task to another. It’s not just me. That’s the way the brain works. Only most people accept this new method as normal.

I refuse to play. I’ll read books as straight text on my ereader and in paper form. I’ll watch movies without commercials. And I am definitely not going to tweet in church.

Photo Credit:
Squirrel:File:2011.06.19 gray squirrel, Kensington Gardens, London, UK 008cc via
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A Clash of Kings
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