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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