Jumping Ahead

When the question is asked – pantser or outliner – I usually describe myself as a pantser.

A pantser is a writer who writes by the seat of her pants.

Or, to paraphrase Tony Hillerman, I write myself into a corner and then write myself out.

But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I’m an outliner. But I don’t call it that. I associate outlines with something I had to do in school. I suppose that’s why I avoid the term.

When I’m starting a book, I sit at the computer and write whatever comes into my head – character sketches, background information, bits of dialog and plot. I explore, I digress, I run around in circles and meander off in search of box canyons and red herrings. By this time I have a have a good idea of where the book starts and ends, but not what happens in the middle.

Ah, those pesky middles.

So I start a timeline. I write down what happens before the book opens – that’s the backstory. My timeline gives me an idea of what needs to happen in order for my protagonist to get to the conclusion and solve the mystery. But at this stage my timeline may only get a few chapters into the plot. Sometimes I write in a linear, chronological fashion, and sometimes I figure out the order of events while I’m writing the book. I discover that order by writing scenes out of order. I call this jumping ahead.

I did it in my Jeri Howard novel Witness to Evil. I managed to get Jeri down to Bakersfield to look for a missing person. Then Jeri learned about a murder. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I only knew that Jeri had to go to Los Angeles to follow a lead. So I jumped ahead. Jeri left Bakersfield and headed over the Grapevine to the LA Basin. I pounded out seven chapters in a short time and when I got Jeri back to Bakersfield I knew more about my timeline. I went back to earlier chapters I’d written and inserted crucial action.

Right now I’m working on my twelfth Jeri Howard book, titled Water Signs. I have a good beginning and a good sense of where Jeri and I are heading. But again, I’m at the point where I’m not sure about what goes where.

So I’ve jumped ahead. I’ve written a number of scenes over the past few days and I’m learning more about my book as Jeri talks to people, ferrets out information and visits the scene of the crime.

The technique is working. I’m making progress by jumping ahead.

Writing the Culinary Thriller

5-Thalia-Filberts with frame
Beat Slay Love is a serial novel about a serial killer, credited to “Thalia Filbert” but actually written by five members of the Thalia Press Authors Coop (TPAC) – Lise McClendon, Katy Munger, Kate Flora, Gary Phillips, and Taffy Cannon. TPAC was created five years ago as a group of eight congenial midlist authors who would share a blog and work together on other projects. The first was the Dead of Winter short story collection in 2011.

The authors discuss their experiences in writing Beat Slay Love.beat-slay-love-cover=final

Taffy Cannon: We five have published over 75 novels among us, and we’ve all been in the mystery community since the early 90s. Gary was on my very first mystery panel at LCC in Anaheim. I remember meeting Kate in an elevator at Malice Domestic. She was wearing a shirt that said “Publishing business is an oxymoron” and I liked her immediately.

Kate Flora: Still, we were already an odd scenario for a blog group, never mind people I’d spend two or three years collaborating with on a group novel.

Gary Phillips: While we set out understanding that Beat Slay Love was to be a send-up of foodie mysteries, we did play it straight in terms of defining the characters, grounding them in certain realities, not writing really outrageous chapters and leaving it to the next writer to be even more outlandish in solving the cliffhanger – as some of these round robin projects can unspool.

Katy Munger: I would write something and the next person would key in on a kernel of what I had written and take it in a whole new direction.

Lise McClendon: What surprised me about the final product of Beat Slay Love was how I couldn’t be sure which part I wrote! Obviously I know I wrote the section in Montana—we each wrote about regional food, often in our own neck of the woods—but we also wrote pieces about our protagonists, Jason the food blogger and Kimberly the FBI agent. Not to mention our anti-heroine, the sex-and-food-obsessed Hannah.

Kate: Everyone on the team has a different voice and style, occupies a different corner of the big tent, and we often had different visions of the central characters. But just as we’ve all learned to work with editors and behave nicely (most of the time) on panels, we’re all seasoned pros who can work with what we’re given. But then, saying “work with” fails to acknowledge the fun of it all.

Taffy: This may be the most fun I’ve had on a writing project since – well, since I covered the 1977 Miss Texas Pageant. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but here I was required to watch the Food Network and read cooking magazines, and investigate culinary ideas I might not have ever thought of. Squid ink pasta? Who knew?

Gary: I hadn’t participated in a round robin novel before, though I was aware of other such efforts, one of the most famous being Naked Came the Stranger in the ‘60s, riffed on in the ‘90s in Naked Came the Manatee.

Taffy: I didn’t sign on initially because I didn’t see how it could possibly work. There was no outline and no plan, and that’s not the way I normally approach mystery writing. But when the other four authors had done their first sections, I was offered another chance to participate. By then there were major and minor characters and three nasty, chef-appropriate murders. (This is most assuredly not a cozy.) I read what they’d done and agreed immediately.

Katy: At first I could not see that there were real connections between our passages.

Taffy: The second time I had the manuscript, I noticed that somebody had changed part of a scene I’d written earlier. That gave me permission to fiddle with other people’s work and I started to do some editing myself for consistency of style and tone. I took out all the bylines we’d started with. Then I set up a time line and figured out where everything logically fit on it. The writing was exuberant, but it didn’t always fit together.

Gary: In terms of my involvement, being the only male, it wasn’t that tough tapping my feminine side. I think women and men interpret and therefore say some things differently when talking about the same subject matter. Though this project definitely had an effect on me as I recently had to write a short story about cars and crime, and it just seemed natural to me that the protagonist in that story would be this young woman of color who is a surfer.

Taffy: When there were issues or questions about how to handle something, we’d talk it through in email. All kinds of stuff got resolved that way, from the title to deadlines to character names to later issues about production and promotion. I was really impressed at how complementary our various talents and connections proved to be.

Gary: Let me say as a sometime editor of anthologies, in terms of editing other writers’ work, Lise and Katy did an outstanding job of editing and retooling the draft into the final manuscript. That’s hard work but it shows in how seamlessly Beat Slay Love reads.

Katy: It was a whole lot of fun and a surprising experience. We had somehow divined what each other was thinking.

Kate: Would I do it again? You bet! Can’t wait to see what this group of wonderfully creative people will cook up next.

In Defense of Indianoplace

Making fun of Indiana is a time-honored tradition. For instance, “You know you’re from Indiana if you carry jumper cables in your car and your wife or girl friend knows how to use them.” Or, “You live in Indiana if you drive for three hours and the scenery never changes.” And one more, “In Indiana a traffic jam is ten cars behind a tractor.” The smart (or is it smarmy?) set on the east and west coasts consider Indiana “fly-over country,” a sort of gigantic suburb of Chicago, a place that didn’t even go on Daylight Saving Time until a few years ago—to me, one of its most endearing traits. A common name for the state capitol is Indianoplace.

Well, I want to speak up in defense of the Hoosier state, even though I don’t know what a Hoosier is. Apparently nobody does. Since 1978 I have lived in western Michigan. My family lives in South Carolina and my wife’s family lives in Evansville (on the Ohio River), so I have made more trips than I can count through Indiana. My older son went to Earlham College, in Richmond; that added a few more trips across the state. Since 2001 I have attended the Magna cum Murder conference, first held in Muncie, now in Indianapolis. I hate driving on interstates, and I soon found that Indiana’s back roads are straight and lightly traveled (and, shall we say, lightly policed). They allowed me to avoid I-65 and I-465 around Indianapolis and introduced me to the state’s charms. And, believe it or not, it does have quite a few.

To begin with, Indiana is really two states. The glaciers in the last Ice Age flattened the northern half of it, down to Indianapolis. That’s why you can see cornfields almost from horizon to horizon. I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, in the foothills of the Smokies. When I moved to the Midwest, at first I missed my mountains. Now when I’m back down south I feel claustrophobic because I can’t see for three or four miles in every direction, like this:

How most people see Indiana, I suspect

How most people see Indiana, I suspect

That reminds me of one more joke: “You know you’re in Indiana if you live in a city and there’s a cornfield in your back yard.”

The northern half of the state may be better known to most people. It features Fort Wayne in the east, South Bend in the center, and Gary in the west. Gary’s problems are really Chicago’s fault, not Indiana’s. South Bend and Fort Wayne both feature museums, restaurants, and other cultural amenities that equal anything you’ll find in a major US city, such as Cleveland or Cincinnati.

I’ll leave the major cities to speak for themselves. I want to mention some of the surprises the state has to offer. I love old houses—particularly those from the late nineteenth century. Every little town in Indiana has some treasures, and many of them are now B&Bs. Take the Solomon Mier house in Ligonier. My wife and I spent our 25th anniversary there.

Solomon Mier house, Ligonier, IN

Solomon Mier house, Ligonier, IN

Ligonier is only a few miles from the Amish country and the antique meccas of Middlebury and Shipshewana. While you’re in the area run over to Lagrange and check out the court house, built in 1878.
Lagrange County Courthouse, Lagrange, IN

Lagrange County Courthouse, Lagrange, IN

A little farther south is Huntington, home of former Vice President Dan Quayle. The main street into town has some of the most beautiful “Painted Ladies” you’ll find in the Midwest. Since they’re still private homes, I decided not to include photos.

The southern half of Indiana, below Indianapolis, is entirely different because those glaciers, being such bullies, pushed the land into hills and gouged out some beautiful gorges and lakes. Take a look at Turkey Run State Park, north of Terre Haute:

Turkey Run State Park. Where's the corn?

Turkey Run State Park. Where’s the corn?

And here’s another shot:
I thought Indiana was flat

I thought Indiana was flat

Didn’t expect to see that in Indianoplace, did you? Brown County State Park, between Bloomington and Columbus, features scenic vistas that make me feel like I’m back in the mountains.

On my most recent trip to the state I explored part of it I hadn’t been in before. Patoka Lake is a resort area north of I-64. Nearby is French Lick, home of that famous hick Larry Bird and also of West Baden Springs, a resort hotel built in 1901-02 that simply beggars description. Not even the pictures of the domed structure—once called The Eighth Wonder of the World—can truly convey the experience of being there.

Yep, right in the middle of Indianoplace

Yep, right in the middle of Indianoplace

Along a stretch of I-64 from New Albany to the Illinois state line you’ll find places that speak of the German and French immigrants who came to the state in the nineteenth century. The abbey of St. Meinrad may be familiar to some, but there are other, more obscure, treasures along the route. In the town of Ferdinand (named after an Austrian archduke) is the monastery of the Sisters of St. Benedict, built on a hill overlooking the town. The church was restored a few years ago. I would call it of European quality.

Monastery of Sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, IN

Monastery of Sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, IN

An lively 82-year-old nun in a wheel chair gave us an hour-long tour. (Communities of women are usually called convents, but this group uses the term monastery.)
Interior of St. Benedict

Interior of St. Benedict

Be sure to visit the bakery; the brewery should also be open by now.

A bit farther north and you’ll come to the town of Jasper, home of the breath-taking church of St. Joseph. Enjoy lunch in a charming café overlooking the Wabash River and then take a stroll along the River Walk. I could show pictures, but I hope I’ve made my point by now.

In sum, what I love about Indiana is the surprises it has to offer, especially in its small towns and in its parks and back roads.

On the Road Again

Wendy Hornsby

Tonight we went to ground at the Holiday Inn in the tiny town of Le Bec, California.  The town is barely a wide spot along the freeway at the top of the Grapevine, the single highway route that connects LA and its harbor to the great agricultural Central Valley.  The heart of Le Bec’s economy is servicing the big rig trucks that haul farm produce south out of the San Joaquin Valley, and haul imports north out of the harbor. In both directions, the trip can be difficult. The Grapevine is a precipitous, and quite spectacular, passage over the Tehachapi Mountains, vulnerable to weather, landslides, earthquakes, and vehicular mishaps of every variety. The route was closed earlier this week when a freak rainstorm sent a wall of mud cascading down onto the highway, choking off this essential link for a few days.  And reopened as quickly as possible.

Usually, we drive straight through here on our trips to Southern California. But, like many of the truckers, we decided to stop overnight so that we could time our entry down into the great, congested, bloody pain in the arse nexus of LA freeways during the elusive, dare I say mythic, traffic gap between morning rush hour and afternoon gridlock so we can get to our destination in Orange County without too much psychic wear and tear, and before my grandson goes down for his afternoon nap. In theory, the trip should take about two hours. With traffic, we could double, triple, quadruple the time.

We had no expectations for the night, other than finding dinner somewhere and the usual Holiday Inn accommodations. But the enterprise around trucking here is truly interesting. There must be a hundred big rigs in the travel center lot across the street.  Big rigs line the road in front of our hotel and fill the graveled field at the end.  Gas, repairs, towing, food, free Wi-Fi, a movie, a shower and a nap, or a hotel room, and then the truckers are back out on the road. We found a terrific family-owned Mexican restaurant next door, from which we watched trucks begin streaming out of town toward the onramp to reach the LA Basin after bedtime for other commuters. Equal numbers pour in off the highway to take their parking places. I think there’s story material here. Of course there is.

Other than grandchild cuddling and spoiling, the purpose of our foray into the Southland is to join fellow contributors to Jewish Noir, an anthology edited by Kenneth Wishnia, for a series of stellar events. The first event is Thursday evening at Book Soup in West Hollywood, followed by a discussion Saturday afternoon, at 2:00, at the Brentwood Library. Sunday morning at 10:30 we head down to Book Carnival in Tustin, and then immediately race down to San Diego to regroup at Mysterious Galaxy at 2:00. Some of the authors who conspired to write Beat, Slay, Love will also be at Mysterious Galaxy Sunday, so there will be a regular feast of writers. The following week we’ll be in the San Francisco Bay Area, and writerly camaraderie and merriment will continue.  If you’re in the Bay Area, ask me for the schedule.



Lea Wait, here, feeling overwhelmed by the history of things.

Yes. Things.

I know people are more valuable than possessions. My heart aches for those who lose everything they own, in fires or floods or wars.

But I cherish many possessions, and cling to them as connections to family, love, and home.

You see, I live in a house built in 1774. My family has only lived here since the mid-1950s, but I’m a fourth generation antiques dealer, and those who came before me not only brought family furniture, china, toys, kitchen and workshop tools … in short, household furnishings … that they had bought or inherited but, in many cases, the things in the house came with stories.

I loved those stories, of the tea kettle my great-great grandmother had used in Edinburgh, and the trunks my great-grandparents took with them on their annual train trip to the Rose Bowl. Over a hundred years ago. The labels are still there.

But I know in my head, if not in my heart, what so many men and women in my generation know: that my children don’t value these things in the same way. Antiques mean little to them. Silver? It has to be cleaned. Mahogany? It’s heavy. And who uses real linen and lace tablecloths anymore (even I don’t), or values a set of their grandmother’s wedding china that can’t be put in the dishwasher or …

The story goes on. So my house is full of things I love, and that were loved before me. At auctions I see the treasures of other families sold for a tiny percentage of their value as those older than I am “deaccession.” I see stories and heritage and a sense of where families came from being lost.

But I foresee the same happening to those things I treasure, not for their monetary value (although some have that, too,) but for what they meant in good and bad times to those who came before me.

I’ve done some downsizing already; sold some things; given things to children I was certain would value them. Some day I may even have to sell this house that I love, and that my family has loved for four generations.

And all that hurts. Better for me to find new homes for these things than to leave them all to my children, who won’t value them, I think.

But still I hold on. Hold on to the memories. The stories. The feeling that when these things go, as they will someday, somehow, they will take with them history and heritage and stories that can never be replaced.

And that makes me very sad.

Sporting things, the Cubs and Doublemint

I’m not a sports fan, although as a prepubescent girl I loved running and skating and biking and baseball. And bowling And roller derby. And as a grownup I love women’s soccer.

I just can’t always appreciate any game that doesn’t include women. Makes me feel left out. One major exception, the ’89 Oakland As. The Bay Bridge World series complete with massive earthquake. They were an incredible team. Too bad Mark McGwire’s  massive shoulders were probably (allegedly?) drug-enhanced.

I might even have been a little in love with Carney Lansford. He reminded me of Errol Flynn, only nicer.

All of that aside (so why is it there at all?)(and why am I using parentheses? I never do that. It’s too cute.), this line of thought has been stimulated by the Cubs actually looking like a winning team this year.

I care about the Cubs because I spent my Twenties, the glorious ‘60s, In Chicago. On the North Side, not far from Wrigley Field. When I left Minneapolis in ’61 the only pro team in town was the Lakers. The name suited a Minneapolis team, but I’ve never liked it for LA.

Wrigley Field seems to have a new name, but I won’t honor that by mentioning it. Wrigley is a Chicago name. The Wrigley mansion sat alongside Lincoln Park. My mother chewed Doublemint.

Polly and I lived across the street from each other close to the park. You didn’t have to be rich, then, to live there.

So I’ve been thinking about the Cubbies. And Chicago. And the ‘60s. I know I can’t go back to the decade, but what about Chicago?





Ebook Sales Are Down: It’s My Fault


Well, not really.  But I am one of those people who’s not reading as many ebooks as before.  The thrill is gone.

In the beginning I was excited to download books instantly whenever, wherever.  Forget two-day delivery with Amazon Prime.  If I wanted a book on my iPad at 3 AM, voilà–and the font and page color could even be adjusted.  How cool was that?

But then the books started massing and I lost track of how many there were, unlike being able to see and sort the TBR pile in my study. I know, not a problem the Pope had to address at the UN, but still–


Then I noticed that far too many ebooks, from all sorts of publishers, seemed badly proofread, if at all.  Spacing was off, typos were bizarre, sometimes whole sections or chapters were in italics.  As an author and reviewer, I know errors creep into books, but this was a level of sloppiness that felt new to me.

Dealing with insomnia after a car accident, one solution recommended by experts was to avoid e-readers (and laptop or PC screens) at night because of the light, so that forced me to cut down.


But I had found myself drifting away from ebooks anyway by that point.  I’m an extrovert and can be easily distracted.  I turn to reading as a form of meditation. I want to be completely lost, mesmerized by storytelling whatever the genre.  Holding a device where I can check my email or the news can break the spell.

More than that, I still enjoy the physical feel of an open book in my hands, especially a hardcover.  I relish the sensuous experience of turning the page, marking passages I enjoy, making notes, comparing pages–things that are totally different experiences with ebooks.

However, I rely on ebooks for trips at home and abroad.  Back in the day, I could never decide what exactly to take with me and either packed too many books or the wrong ones.  That never happens anymore.  And if it somehow does and there’s absolutely nothing that interests me left on my iPad, I can still browse wherever I am.

If the WiFi is good.

So what about you?  Are you reading more ebooks than you used to?  Are you reading fewer?  Or about the same?  Why?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror.


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