Kicking and screaming and rereading my babies

For some time, one of my good writer friends has been threatening to drag me kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  It’s a joke between us, but it really did take some dragging to persuade me to turn my published mysteries, at least the five to which I have all the rights, into electronic books for Kindles, Nooks, and all those other gizmos.  My friend is right, of course.  With Her Brother’s Keeper coming out in April, it makes sense to help readers find the earlier books in the series, and it certainly makes sense to sell them to a new audience.  But the process of getting from here to there flummoxed me.                      

 Little by little, I learned enough to face it.  These books have already had the benefit of editors and copy editors and proofreaders in their original editions.  My agent, who’s been nothing but honorable for years and will take the agency’s usual reasonable percentage of whatever I earn, arranged for the books to be scanned and will upload them to all the various platforms.  (I almost know what I’m talking about.)  And I persuaded the friend who got me into this business to design covers for them (dragging kicking and screaming works both ways).

It turns out there’s an art to that.  Unlike regular book covers, the ones for ebooks have to be effective when they’re seen thumbnail size—only about an inch tall–by people who might consider buying them.  You’d be amazed how hard it is to get the title and the author’s name legible in such a small space and still have any design.

 The first one, Murder in C Major, was relatively easy.  Poisoned Pen Press, which still has it in print, kindly allowed me to use their cover art, and we messed around with the lettering to make my long name legible.  I hunted up the actual music for the solo the oboe player is beginning to play when he keels over–why not?  It will be fun for musicians who know Schubert’s Great C Major symphony, and it will just look like music to anyone else.

But we didn’t have cover art for Buried in Quilts, or any of the others.  After persuading a friend to let us photograph her “buried” under some of my quilts, we first decided to use a rumpled one with nobody actually under it.

 Here’s an early version that doesn’t work at all,.

 And here’s an almost-final version of what I thought we were going to use.  The quilt is mine–the sad iron an image we bought from an online source, where we’ll probably buy a violin for The Vanishing Violinist.  I don’t have the skills to do this kind of work, but that doesn’t keep me from kibitzing.

My real job is to proof the scanned texts. I know how to do that, but it has hit me in a way I didn’t expect.  This series takes place over a very few years in the lives of the characters, but the first one came out in 1986, and I hadn’t gone back and read any of them straight through for years.  Oh, sure, I remembered what they were about enough to talk about them occasionally, but not all the details that make them come alive, much less the words my characters speak or think.

 It’s a very different experience from writing, or rewriting, or even proofing something I’ve written recently.  Even writing this informal blog, I think about word choices and whatever else matters to me as a writer.  But rereading these books is more like reading mysteries by someone else.  By now I’m so far removed from them I don’t remember which sentences came easily and which were a struggle.  I find I’m reading for the story, even while watching for possible scanning errors.  I smile at the funny bits.  Over and over I catch myself thinking, “I wrote that?  Really?”  Or “I did that much research?” Or every once in a while, “That’s pretty good.”  And so help me, the other night I read Witness in Bishop Hill much too late–because I couldn’t remember whodunit!

Before I started, I wondered whether I’d be tempted to change the words.  I’ve caught a few typos and a speck on the page that turned into a period, but that’s all.  These books are what they are.  I’m not even messing with a date that makes it obvious that the children in Murder & Sullivan could be middle-aged parents in Her Brother’s Keeper, when in fact they’ve aged only about four years in all this time.  I can only hope that today’s readers will tolerate the disconnect.   My aging babies have to stand on their own two e-feet.

 And it turns out my friend may yet show up buried in quilts after all.



by Nancy Means Wright

     Most mornings I walk thirty to forty minutes before the long three-four hour write-sit at the computer. This isn’t  just to exercise my heart, but to stimulate the brain. Especially for the times when I can’t think what should occur next in a story, or simply how to begin one. For it’s amazing the way something will happen during a walk and you think, aha!–just what I needed to sharpen a scene or add an intriguing new character to the mix.

     Yesterday morning, for instance, I was feeling sluggish and a bit depressed. I’d recently finished a book and needed something to jog my brain and open up my senses. What should I do next? Write a poem or short story? Begin a new novel? I was drawing a blank. So I threw on my winter parka, and entered the Battell Woods behind my house–phase one of my walk. It was 37 degrees, but I shivered with pleasure as the November leaves filled my nose with a fresh, crunchy, earthy fragrance.  From the start I didn’t lack for company, for a black cat was following on my heels. I knew enough not to touch him or he’d growl–he was feral until a neighbor began to feed him.

     I hadn’t walked ten minutes when a man with a dirty green pack on his back thrust his way through the trees. He was a homeless fellow with a mop of wild brown hair–I’d seen him once, sitting alone at a community supper. His sudden presence gave me a start, and he realized it, for he backed up a step. I’d heard that some of our homeless sleep in these woods, at least until snowfall. How would he get through the winter?

     When he scowled at my greeting, my heart picked up a beat. I mumbled somethng about “a chilly day” and offered him the banana I’d been saving for the end of my walk. He took it with a nod, peeled it back, then stooped to pat the black cat, and it didn’t growl. “It likes you,” I said, and he shrugged, then veered about and disappeared into the wood–followed by the cat! Was it his only companion? Had he been abandoned by parents, teachers, friends–was he a Robinson Crusoe, alone in a sea of trees? I was burning to know his past.


    Coming out onto Seminary Street below, I met the white-haired widower with the wire-haired terrier. I didn’t know him by name, but he’d always smile and tilt his head to squint into my eyes, as though surprised to see me here and still alive. He almost lost his balance, but a neighbor, Reverend Bob, who is some kind of minister, came jogging past and held him upright with a blue woolen arm and a broad smile. 

     Next it was Peg from my poetry workshop, squealing to a stop in her ancient Subaru to tell me about a mutual friend’s 25-year-old daughter who’d died from an overdose. “Meth, heroin,” Peg whispered, “one of those. The family blames the boyfriend.” There was a story here, I thought, but how often had it been told? As though to confirm the tragic tale, sirens screeched as an ambulance raced down the street toward town.  

     A Project Independence van was stopped in front of a house I passed every day, to pick up an elderly woman who never wanted to go. Today she was vehement, almost violent. “They yak, yak in that place,” she shouted, “all nothings! No independence about it! I can’t concentrate on my book. I want to stay in my house!” The impatient, big-bellied man-of-the-house loomed over her. “I’m late for work, Doris. You can’t stay here alone. Get in that friggin’ van, you hear?” I wanted to tell him I’d take Doris to my house. She could read her book while I wrote (while I wrote about her?) But the man shoved the wheelchair up into the van and slammed the door on it. I saw a tearful face, a fist in the window as it drove past. 

     I walked past election signs piled up behind a black iron fence; a yellow dog barked ferociously at me.  A small boy chased a ball into the street: “Get out of there,” the mother screeched, “you wanna get kilt?” A dad on a bicycle pedaled past, clasping a todder in front. I waved, and the child waved back. A middle-aged man stalked by, ignoring my greeting. He had on dark sunglasses, a zigzag scar on one cheek, a deep dimple in his chin–what should I infer from such a contradictory face? My villains tend to be ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

     The rest of my walk was refreshing but quiet. A friend rolled down a car window as I trudged up the final hill: “Want a ride?” I waved her on. I was in stride now, feeling great, my heart thumping from the climb. I didn’t have a situation for a story, but I had a couple of characters for it: the homeless fellow, of course, and the whitehaired widower who always responded cheerily to my “good morning.”

     Suppose the widower was well, taking a walk, passing the house of the woman who wanted to stay home to read her book–he’d seen that impatient man before, shoving the unhappy female into the van. He’d met the woman once at a church supper, found her attractive…..

              she has already left for Project Independence, but someone in the house is screaming–a neighbor? The widower enters the house to help. and lo, the impatient man is flat out on the livingroom rug with a knife in the back of his neck. And there’s a homeless man  in the kitchen, eating a banana! A cop car pulls up. Now Widower and Homeless are both suspects!  (And what about the elderly woman?)

     Whew!  I was home by now, bursting at the proverbial seams, so many images in my head I didn’t know where to start. But I’d Walked around the Block, yes! So I fixed a cup of coffee (strong), booted up my computer–and started typing.

Men are from Mars; women are from St. Mary Mead

I wish my royalty statements were broken down demographically. (I also wish they showed better sales, but that’s a whole nother rant.) I’d really like to know where my readers are. I’m willing to bet, for instance, that the Hilda books, set in South Bend, Indiana, sell a lot better in the midwest than anywhere else, but I’d like to know specifically where.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that most of my readers are female. For one thing, the emails I get from fans are overwhelmingly from women. Which is what I would expect, since I write cozies. But I got to thinking, on my walk this morning, about why most men prefer action-oriented books, whereas many women love cozies.

I know that anything I say on the subject is going to smack of profiling, so I’ll admit right off that I have no statistics to prove these opinions. They’re just that, opinions based on seventy-one years of observing my fellow humans, with a smattering of social science thrown in.

The thing is, guys seem to enjoy violence. (But hey, guys, don’t direct it at me, okay? Just opinion, remember?) Now, the men I know, and I think most men, get their violence vicariously. In sports, for example. Whether they play or just watch, they enjoy seeing other men getting punched and elbowed and buried under several hundred pounds of rival “players.” Or their penchant for violence may be much more subdued, even to the point of preferring the war that is waged on a chess board.

Or a nice bloody murder or two in a book.

The pleasant part about all this is that violence at second hand is safe. Those humongous football players aren’t going to burst out of the screen and pound the guy who’s sitting on the couch eating Doritos and drinking beer. That serial killer stalking the pages of the book isn’t going to slip in the reader’s back door in the middle of the night and slit his throat. So the guys get the thrills without the actual danger.

I’m not saying woment don’t enjoy violence. A lot of us watch football, too. (I don’t, but then I don’t have a functioning TV.) A lot of us slow down, at least, to look at the accident on the highway, and mixed with the horror and sympathy is at least the tiniest frisson of excitement. But I think our enjoyment is different. I think that women, by our very nature as child-bearers, are hard-wired to need security. The part that many women like best about murder-by-book, at least murder-by-cozy, is that we know everything will be all right in the end. No, there won’t be a happy ending for everybody. We’re reasonable enough to know that’s not possible. Someone has died, perhaps several someones. A community has been disrupted; lives have been horribly changed. But we know that the person responsible for these actions will be captured and led to justice. We know that, by the end of the book, healing will have begun.

Women enjoy, too, the image of the quieter, more ordered world. The world of a cozy mystery is one where things move at a little slower pace than the real world we live in. There’s time for a cup of tea, and there’s a community of friends and family with whom to have that tea. Many of us, both men and women, live in a world of constant activity, of too much to do and too little time to do it in. We move from home to the morning commute, from job back to home, picking up the kids at school on the way and taking one to soccer practice and another to ballet lessons and stopping to get groceries, and, and, and…. There’s barely time to breathe, let alone chat with friends or enjoy any recreation more strenuous than collapsing in front of that TV set. We may not even know our neighbors. But in Three Pines there’s always time for a lovely breakfast with Gabri and Olivier. In Broward’s Rock we can drop into Death on Demand for coffee, books, and conversation. In Sherebury we can visit with the next-door neighbor or pop into the Cathedral for some refreshment for the soul.

And if in all those places there is conflict and hatred and violence just as virulent and horrific as on the mean streets, it’s surrounded and tempered by the goodwill of the ordinary—or extraordinary—people, the people very much like us, who help work through the maze to the solution.

Hey, guys, you might want to desert your mean streets for a little while and sample the deceptive peace of St. Mary Mead. You might find the streets a little meaner, and a whole lot more interesting, than you think.

A Timeless Tale

Wendy Hornsby

A couple of weeks ago, while campaigning for the passage of California Proposition 30, which called for a modest increase in taxes to forestall even more dire funding cuts to California’s public education systems than we have already suffered, I began to wonder if I was working at counter purposes. One of the themes of my most recent book, The Hanging, is the currently fraught atmosphere on college campuses created by those budget cuts. It is a timely story, I know, because I teach on a campus that is similar to the fictional one I created for the book. The mood around here ranges from fretting malaise to simmering rage, altogether a milieu ripe for someone to snap. A good place to set a mystery, I thought, two years ago when I began writing The Hanging.

Prop 30 passed, and there was a great sigh of relief. Though the new tax revenue will not backfill the economic hole created by half a decade of recessionary funding cuts—it will only prevent a trigger for deeper cuts from occurring—I wondered, when we write a story that is linked to current events, and then later the foundation of those events shifts or disappears, do we risk seeing our work become irrelevant? An anachronism?
If a story is well written, the answer should be No. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, has all of the power now that it had for readers during the Dust Bowl era when it was published; it is timeless. Oliver Twist also still captivates. But then there is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In its own time, 1852, the book’s anti-slavery message hit the world like a bombshell. It was the first American book that could truly be called a best seller, not only in the U.S. but abroad as well. Of course, best sellerdom and great literature are not necessarily synonyms. Even in its own time, Uncle Tom was valued—or reviled, in the case of the slave-owning south—more for its message than for the elegance of its prose. Indeed, I find it painful to read as anything except an artifact of history.   Once slavery was abolished, an artifact if history it became.

There, then, is the dilemma. I want to write stories that are relevant. And I want them to endure. Both should be aimed for, both can be achieved.  Good writing, memorable characters wrapped within stories that address fundamental, timeless human concerns.    When asked what a book is about, I always say, love, death, and redemption, because, in essence, they all are. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. 


Deja Vu All Over Again

I’ve been genre hopping.  In the historical past, I wrote and sold four regency romances.  My editor, Ruth Cavin, taught me a lot about self-editing.  I was happy working with her, and I foolishly assumed that situation would continue.  However, as everyone knows, Ruth gave up regencies, moved to St. Martin’s, and began editing excellent mysteries.

I was downcast, especially since the new regency editor appeared to want me to write in busines English of the American variety.  I used STET a lot on the last book and began to think about mysteries.

I liked them.  I read a lot of them, the British ones particularly, and I really liked working with Ruth, so I decided to write a mystery.  She rejected it (correctly, as I now see), so I wrote another, and that one she bought, though I think she continued to regard me as a strayed romance writer.  So here I am, ten books later, a mystery writer with two series.  I’m not the first fiction writer to jump from one genre to another, but the shift is fairly uncommon, or was when I did it.

Meanwhile I sold the e-book rights of the regencies to Judith B. Glad of Uncial Press, and she’s also in the process of reissuing my first mystery series.  From time to time, she hinted that another regency, a new one, would be welcome.  I finally took her up on it, promising a novella in time for Black Friday.

The Young Pretender started short but wound  up long for a novella.  Judith is going to vend it as a short novel, bless her.  I had several sessions of writer’s bloc when I was working on the regency, but I finished it in August and am happy with it.  Among other pleasures, writing it gave me an excuse to reread the poems of Robert Burns.  Perhaps the greatest pleasure, however, was to move from the focus on death and destruction that’s necessary even in cozy mysteries to a more light-hearted venue.  It was nice not to have to wallow in grue.

On the other hand, I came to a greater appreciation of the mystery plot structure.  I like to think of all my books as character-driven, but without action and suspense a mystery is dead in the water.  Since regencies are terribly chaste as romances go, the need for drastic action isn’t great.  Apart from two dinner parties and a row across a lake in a rainstorm, the most intense action in The Young Pretender comes when the heroine learns to build a fire in the fireplace.  To my surprise, I discovered I really missed writing shootouts, hostage crises, and high-speed chases.

I also missed the security of the mystery plot-structure.  All novels are puzzles in the broadest sense, but the tropes of the murder mystery supply the writer with most of the plot, right from the beginning.  With a regency, since graphic sex was out of the question, I had to keep groping around for something my people could do before the final clinch.  They talked a lot.  In two dialects.

Well, I’ve had my vacation.  I’m back looking at corpses and suspecting innocent bystanders of Evil.  It feels good to do that, especially in American English of the twenty-first century Pacific Northwest kind.

The Making of a Long Running Series

by Laura Crum

I think I’m entitled to say my mystery series is “long-running” at twelve books, yes? In any case, I had some thoughts about what I consciously did to get through twelve books featuring one protagonist and her cast of friends and critters…without getting bored with her. And even more importantly, without (hopefully) causing my readers to get bored with her.
I have to admit that a lot of my thoughts are concerned with what I DIDN’T want to do, based, sadly, on things I had observed in other series. And the first thing I determined was that I would not keep writing the series into infinity, even if I was highly successful with it (fortunately this was never a problem). Too many series trickle to a sad end after their former glory, and it is quite clear that no one, including the author, had much interest in the last three or four books. This was a fate I decided to avoid. From the very beginning, I set a goal of writing a dozen books, which seemed to me to be a goodly amount, and planned to quit when they were accomplished.
I did not know, to begin with, exactly what would happen in each of those dozen books, but I did sketch them out many books in advance. I had the titles neatly listed out. And before I got around to the last three or four books, I knew what they would be about and how they would round out and complete my series.
Because I wanted my twelve book series to have a “form” as a whole, as one super-long story about a particular woman and her life. And for this to happen, I needed to be clear how the series would end, and lead up to that ending appropriately.
Another thing I was clear about is that my protagonist would change and grow throughout the series. If there is one thing I don’t care for in a series, it is the device of keeping the protagonist in the same “place” for book after book. You know, that place where she has a romantic interest that hasn’t quite come to fruition. Because, of course, that is the easiest phase of life to write about. All that glorious sexual tension, but you don’t have to deal with the actual bedroom. No messy details to work out concerning how your heroine can remain independently solving mysteries and still be a good partner. Yep, it is SO tempting to just stall your protagonist out in that one handy romantic space and leave her there for book after book. And a great many authors do exactly this.
I’m sorry, but that seriously doesn’t work for me, no matter how talented the author and engaging the books. If I am reading a series, I want the thing as a whole to be going somewhere. To that end I was clear that my protagonist would change and grow. Grow older for one thing. Go through some major life changes, for another.
In order to make this work I kept careful track of the chronology of the stories. My horse vet is thirty-one in the first book, Cutter, and just beginning her career. She ages one year per book for the first ten books, which gets her to forty. At this fine age I presented her with a baby. (And yep, it was seriously challenging to create exciting mystery plots wrapped up with first pregnancy and then a nursing baby, and yep, some former fans did not care for my turning my vet into a mom. The battle lines seemed clearly drawn between those who were parents themselves and liked this development, and those who weren’t parents and didn’t. But if there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that you can’t please everybody and its best to please yourself. However, I digress.) In the last two books, Going, Gone and Barnstorming, I allowed five years to pass between stories, thus effectively getting my gal to fifty, which was more or less my age when I wrote the last book.
The whole thing fit together nicely. The series covers twenty years in the life of one woman, and I spent twenty years of my life writing it. The series begins with a thirtyish protagonist, and I was thirty when I started the first book. It ends with us both being fifty. Throughout the books I gave “Gail” many of the life changes that I went through myself, which kept the books interesting to me, and (I think) gave the ring of truth to her various adventures.
Another thing I did to keep the series interesting was to take on a different aspect of the horse world in each book. Horses were the main theme of the books, and, since horses are a main theme in my life, I wanted to stick to that. But I did not want to write about the same things over and over. Fortunately I have done a lot of different things with horses in my life, so the books ranged through cutting horses and western show horses to ranching and roping and horse packing and breaking a colt…etc. I tried not to repeat myself in either the horse aspect or the plot.
I characterized each plot with a theme. There is the “noble villain” and the “murder for greed,” the “murder for jealousy” and the “crazy serial killer.” You get the idea. Once again, I tried not to repeat myself.
I also tried to show Gail aging. She is described differently as the books go along, and her way of thinking changes. In this I was aided by the fact that I was aging right along with her. So in the earlier books she is much more interested in clothes and what people look like physically than she is in the later books. In the course of the series she goes through a breakup and a depression as well as finding a life partner and having a child and raising him. At the end of the series, she contemplates retirement. I’d say I put her through quite the gamut of life changes. And that’s exactly what I set out to do from the beginning.
So there are a few ideas I used to create my (reasonably) long running series. I’d be interested to hear what devices others use, or what you like and don’t like to see in a series character.

So many good things

There have been scary elections before. Nothing like this one. Not even Nixon’s run back in the’70s. You know, the Watergate election?

I know–you’re sick to death of it. The endless rehashing. But I’m still celebrating, and I want to talk about celebration.  Look at what we did. The republicans are stunned. I’m stunned. Stunned by the good sense of the voters. Proud of the country. The Objectivists–Paul Ryan’s nasty little bunch–didn’t get a toehold in our government. Didn’t get a chance to push Romney aside, one way or another, and impose their superman crap on us. Poor supermen. So put upon by their inferiors. If you don’t know who and what these people are, look into it and breathe a giant sigh of relief. They are absolutely ruthless. If they’d gotten power it would have been a case of Atlas Shrugging.

The Atlases we elected won’t shrug. Their real moral core won’t let them.

And speaking of morality, mean-spirited stupidity lost big. I can now get married in more states. Of course, I’m holding my breath for the supreme court to rule on the topic of marriage equality, but it sure looks like things are going the way of generosity and love and intelligence.

My sister wanted to be sure that I’d noticed that “Minnesota has its heart in the right place.” My sweetie and I reminisced about Chicago in the Sixties–not the fun, bell-bottomed Sixties but the time when we could be arresteds for holding hands, taken to jail for dancing together. Good times, eh? We still find the changes unbelievable. But we can believe them now.

So many good things happened in this election. Always happy to find out once again that this really is my country.