Saturday, February 23, 2019

Cathy Ace: Steps away from the light and comes up aces...

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently had the great pleasure of reading an advance copy of Cathy Ace's THE WRONG BOY. I was bowled over. Engrossing characters, perfectly rendered Welsh setting, a stunning ending, and as with the best books, the title takes on a new meaning when you're done reading.

Today we welcome Cathy today to talk about her amazing new book.

CATHY ACE: A recent review of my latest book The Wrong Boy (by the well-respected Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books) began thus:

“With two successful series and a few collections of novellas, some may view Cathy Ace’s decision to release a stand-alone psychological suspense novel as a strange – and potentially risky – move…”

Kristopher was right – I was leaping into the unknown, stepping into the dark…
My Cait Morgan Mysteries have their place firmly in the “traditional” camp; they are contemporary, closed-circle whodunits, with a not-so-amateur professor of criminal psychology as a sleuth.
I have never viewed them as “cozy” though they were marketed as such by the publisher, there being “no distinctive way to market them as traditional”; each is set in a different country, with an ever-changing cast of characters save the two main protagonists. My other series, the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries, is truly “cozy”, featuring a recurring cast, a Welsh village and stately home, and several quirky, and quintessentially British, cases for my four female professional PIs to investigate in each book.

Then along came 2017, when I was faced with two publishers who no longer wanted to do business with me the way they had (a new direction for one, a new owner for the other) so it was clear I had a Big Decision to make – what to write next. Oh, and I should probably mention I also fired my agent. So, I completed my contractual obligations, then plotted my next move…

As a psychology graduate I have always been drawn to the “why” more than merely the “who” or the “how”; Cait Morgan is a professor of criminal psychology who applies her significant understanding of the human condition to the cases she encounters on her travels, and while the four women of the WISE Enquiries Agency aren’t psychologists, they always use their breadth of life-experience and insights to interpret the information they gather through their professional investigating.

So why not run with that? The “why” as the driver for an entire book. But how, exactly?

I began where I always tell those wanting to write to begin – by reading. I read dozens of psychological suspense novels, from the bestsellers to those by authors I’d never heard of before. I met flocks of unreliable narrators (often “girls”!), and became wary of anyone who’d ever sipped so much as a small glass of sherry or sustained even the slightest bump on the head at any point in their life because – you know…blackouts and amnesia, right? I suspect I over-read, because I ended up convinced the “shape” of these books wasn’t right for me as an author.

You see, I had a plot, with the key twists all lined up, but it didn’t feel right; the three main female characters in my head lived their worrying lives in a Welsh location I knew well, but still I couldn’t orchestrate the right rhythm for the tale.

Then I got it!

I’d written a collection of short, and long, stories, as well as a collection of novellas; three of those novellas featured characters from the original collection of short stories, and two of those sets of characters had grown to live their lives in their own series of books. Yes, Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson as well as the four women of the Wise Enquiries Agency were all “born” in the same collection

The real location of THE WRONG BOY: Rhossili, South Wales

of short stories. The only character who’d recurred in my novellas who hadn’t been featured in a novel was a lovely chap by the name of Detective Inspector Evan Glover of the West Glamorgan Police Service in South Wales, who lived an unremarkable, but hard-working and happily-settled life with his psychotherapist wife Betty.

I decided to introduce a police detective element into the shape of the new book to be able to change the rhythm – without allowing it to become a police procedural, which I knew I didn’t want to write. I’d left DI Glover pondering his future as a policeman at the end of the novella I’d written about him in Murder Knows No Season – so decided to give his wife a significant financial windfall, which would allow him to take early retirement.

That meant was I was then able to tell my dark, twisting tale not through the eyes of one unreliable narrator, but through several – each of whom knew a part of what was going on, but none of whom could see the whole picture.
I gave each their own point of
view, each their own voice – and allowed the reader to see the world in which they lived through their individual lenses, never certain about what was true, or what was assumed or imagined.

Now that the book is written, the characters’ voices aren’t talking in my head anymore – which I’m sure is a good thing. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of revealing more and more layers of the psyches of the characters – from Evan and Betty Glover struggling

Village of Rhossili, South Wales
as a couple to come to terms with his retirement, to the many ways in which secrets kept within and between families can be psychologically destructive, and even deadly.

It’s been a journey down a darker, twisting path for me. A risk? Certainly, but the review I mentioned earlier concluded with “The Wrong Boy is a first-class narrative journey and readers should seek it out immediately” which is uplifting, and the book recently hit #1 on the amazon psychological suspense best seller list, which tells me readers like the sound of it enough to take that journey with me. And – especially when we leave our usual paths and take a chance – I believe that’s the best an author can hope for.

Do you choose to follow authors whose work you enjoy when they take a different path?
Does it always work for you? Or them?

Find Cathy at:
Twitter: @AceCathy

Friday, February 22, 2019

Smitten by Bud Stamper

HALLE EPHRON: I was a child of the movies. I wanted to BE Velvet Brown. I wanted Holly Golightly to be my best friend. And I lusted after Bud Stamper

We're talking the early nineteen sixties when I was fourteen years old and obsessed with my shortcomings—too tall, too skinny, pimply, smelly, hairy. It was then, in the throes of self-conscious adolescent angst, that I first clapped eyes on Bud. 

My best friend and I took the bus to the Picwood movie theatre in Westwood to see Splendor in the Grass. I left besotted with Warren Beatty’s character, Bud, a sweet, sensitive, sex-starved high-school quarterback who’s madly in love with the virginal, beautiful, popular, passionate, repressed Deanie (Natalie Wood)

He (Bud? Warren?) nailed me with those crinkly eyes, that goofy smile, and an endearing boyish awkwardness. He had the perfect inarticulate stammer and aw-shucks manner about him, a sweetened amalgam of Marlon Brando and James Dean. 

If you’re in my generation, I know you saw the movie. If not, here’s what you missed. It’s set in small-town Kansas in 1928 inthe midst of Prohibition and in the run-up to the stock market crash. Bud’s wealthy father, an oil man who’s all bluster and narcissism, wants Bud to go to Yale and join the family business. Bud wants to go to ag school, become a farmer, and marry Deanie. 

Deanie’s not-so-wealthy parents have aspirations for Deanie, too. Her mother is desperate for her to marry Bud. But her mother’s nightmare is that that her daughter will “go too far” and have to have “one of those operations” and end up shamed for life. 

The screen nearly explodes with unfulfilled lust that drives Bud into the arms of Juanita, the girl boys say “knows what it’s all about.” Desperate Deanie tells Bud she’ll do “whatever you want,” but he can’t bring himself to soil her innocence. Which in turn drives Deanie literally around the bend. She tries to kill herself and ends up in a psychiatric hospital.

Bud soldiers on. Following Daddy’s orders, he goes to Yale but flunks out. He marries a waitress and settles down to be rancher on his father’s land, the only bit of his father’s estate that remains intact after the stock market crash. When Deanie, about to be married, comes looking for him, she meet Angelina, a former waitress who’s his sweet pregnant wife, played by the wonderfully slatternly Zohra Lampert. Deanie asks Bud if he’s happy. He answers, “I don’t ask myself that question very often.”

And they go their separate ways.

It’s all very tragic, a morality tale about the power of sex that left me with a great deal to think about. Would I be Deanie or Juanita or Angelina? There are so many tired sexual stereotypes in this movie, but back then I was seriously unwoke. Almost everything I knew about sex was based on Selena in Peyton Place. And now Deanie in Splendor in the Grass.

I followed Warren Beatty’s career, but by the time Bonnie And Clyde
 came out six years later the bloom was off that rose. According to my movie magazines, my sweet Bud Stamper had been sleeping around. And around. 

It would take a while for me to realize that my ideal partner was not a hunk whom other women lusted after. He was slow but steady, the tortoise not the hare, not clever but smart, loyal…and devoted.

Once upon a time (before you knew better), were you smitten by a rock star? A movie idol? Was it the smile, the eyes, or the abs?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

To Thesaurus or not to Thesaurus

HALLIE EPHRON:  Writers are split on the value of a thesaurus.
Margaret Atwood: You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.
Roddy Doyle: Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. 'horse,' 'ran,' 'said.
J. M. Barrie had a soft spot for it. Here's how he describes the villainous Captain Hook in Peter Pan:

The man is not wholly evil - he has a Thesaurus in his cabin
The first draft of the first Thesaurus was completed in 1805. But Dr. Peter Mark Roget, the philologist, scientist, physician who put it together, kept it for decades as a secret project. He didn't publish it until 1852. I imagine him like Gollum, murmuring My Preciouss and stroking the pages all those years when he kept it to himself. Since 1852 it's never been out of print.

Here's a page from the original manuscript which is among the holidngs of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums.

Recently, I was at a writing conference this year, listening to a writer who advised us not to go looking for words in the thesaurus. The best words, he said, were right there at our fingertips. I appreciated the caution, and I eschew words like utilize when instead of use, and lie sounds a lot more natural than prevaricate. I never want to put a word on the page that jumps up and down shouting "AUTHOR AUTHOR!"

However, as I tried to explain to him, I don't go to the thesaurus for fancy words. I go there to find the words I’ve misplaced... and these days there are more and more of them. I did not expect him, a 40-something, to understand how that goes.

What's your feeling about the Thesaurus?

JENN McKINLAY: I love the thesaurus! It could be the librarian in me who values ALL the reference books but I actually use the thesaurus quite a bit. Not to sound more literary in my writing - because, hello, this is me, the person who makes up words like "shrinkle" and had a knock down drag out fight with a copyeditor to let me keep it - but rather to get my brain stretching and reaching in new and different ways when I feel as if I can't quite describe something the way I want.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love the Thesaurus, too! I use it to...hone the word. Peter Abrahams talks about how a writer can know a word is "agonizingly close" to the correct word, but not exactly the right word...and doesn't that happen? So when that happens to me (every day!)  I use the thesaurus to pick the word that's most like the one I really mean. Then I click on that selection, and see what the sort-of-synonyms for that words are,  and see if I can get closer.  And do that until I find it. Although. I have to say that often I just stick with the one I thought of first.  But I do sometimes find words I've totally forgotten, and for that, I am grateful.

(Sidebar: So often when I find the better word, turns out it's an alliteration of the word it modifies. Is it only me? Why is this, if it happens to you?) (If not, never mind.)

LUCY BURDETTE: I went to the thesaurus this morning because I found I'd used the word "crowded" twice in one paragraph. Here's what came up: congested, crushed, cramped, overcrowded, full, filled to capacity, full to bursting, overfull, overflowing, teeming, swarming, thronged, populous, overpopulated, overpeopled, busy. I chose "cramped" because it sounded like a word Hayley Snow would be using to describe the houseboat.

But this makes me wonder, do you use a hard-copy thesaurus or simply Google the word in question?

HALLIE: I go to a web site. There are a bunch that will give you synonyms. My favorite is
RHYS BOWEN: I have a great book at home in California. It's called Word--something. And I can't remember what. But it's a great thesaurus-like book with cross referencing that makes it extra useful. I went on Amazon to see if I could find it but instead I found something called Naughty Words for Nice Writers. I think I have to have that!

I don't often resort to a Thesaurus. If I can't come up with a word I wander around muttering to myself, trying out alternatives, or, finally resorting to yelling to John, "What's another word for xxx?"

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I love the thesaurus, too, but I don't use it to find fancier words--it's for dealing with those infernal repetitions. Or sometimes if I just can't quite get the right word. Or the missing words, as Hallie said, which happen more often than I'd like these days.

I usually use the one in, but I miss the days when I kept a paperback thesaurus right by my keyboard.

HALLIE: So, where do you go when you need to find a word?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sherry Knowlton's passes the "Alexa test" with spirit bears & rogue hippos

HALLIE EPHRON: Sherry Knowlton writes a classic thriller heroine, Alexa Williams, who pushes boundaries and thrives on danger, all the while remaining utterly human. The Midwest Book Review praised her newest book, DEAD OF WINTER, for its "beautiful prose" and "intriguing, suspenseful story which grabs the attention of the reader from the very first page."

For Sherry, that old saw, "write what you know," clearly doesn't apply. And yet...

SHERRY KNOWLTON: The heroine in my Alexa Williams suspense series is a young attorney who keeps finding dead bodies and dangerous situations. In the newest book, Dead of Winter, Alexa becomes the target of an angry mob, has to fight for her life using hand-to-hand combat, and confronts terrorists.

She’s certainly not an invincible superhero type. Quite the opposite; Alexa often second-guesses her own capabilities. She’s a bit of a crusader who has a dogged determination to do what’s right.  The downside is that sometimes she gets carried away and that gets her into trouble. At her core, Alexa is a very brave woman.

As I was editing Dead of Winter, I thought about the challenges I have this fictional heroine face in book after book and wondered: how would I react if I encountered one of the hurdles I throw at Alexa? The closest I’ve come to a test of courage in real life is in encounters with wild animals.

This past autumn, my husband and I took a small boat adventure to see Spirit Bears. These beautiful white bears are found on three islands off the coast of British Columbia.  We spent a day on one of
the islands, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Spirit Bear. I assumed we’d observe the bears from a viewing platform.  Not quite.

I was perched on a fallen tree in a creek bed when the Spirit Bear came meandering down the stream.  Our guides had told us to sit still and not panic if a bear approached.  Easier said than done when a several hundred-pound bear stops twenty feet away and looks you in the eye. 

So, I sat there in a mixture of awe and terror, snapping photos and hoping she didn’t decide to investigate this woman with the camera.  But, she seemed more interested in fishing for salmon than me. Soon, the bear ambled away, and my heart rate returned to normal.

Did I meet Alexa’s standard of remaining cool in the face of danger?  Maybe. I followed instructions to remain still (meaning I didn’t jump up and run away screaming). And, being that close to a wild bear, one I traveled hundreds of miles to see, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The magic of seeing a Spirit Bear in the wild outweighed the fear.  When she left, I had tears in my eyes – not from fright but from wonder.

I was less sanguine in an earlier animal encounter.  My husband, our guide, Josef, and I were cruising by motorboat down a narrow channel in Botswana’s Okavango Delta when a rogue hippo rushed our boat. He swam straight at us, stopping just a few feet away to open his mouth in huge roar.

A note: Rogue hippos are solitary males cast out of the herd.  Living alone makes them ill-tempered and very dangerous.  Hippos kill more people in Africa each year than any other animal. 

When the animal continued to rush us, Josef raced the boat to the shallows, trying to make it harder for the hippo to flip the boat and attack us in the water.  He told my husband and me to get ready to dash to a nearby palm tree and climb it.  The gravity of our situation sank in when I weighed the odds of reaching that tree, chased by an enraged animal with the size and speed of a small car.

Just as we prepared to run, the hippo backed off.  The guide jammed the boat into gear and fled. As we rounded a bend in the channel, the hippo fell back and abandoned the chase.

Did I pass the Alexa test in the hippo encounter? Sort of. I was very scared and aware of my own physical limitations. If we’d been forced to leave the boat and run for that scrawny palm tree, good chance that the hippo would have flattened me. But, I didn’t scream, faint, cry or blubber. Instead, I channeled much of my fear into worry for my husband, who was taking photos each time the hippo leapt at us.

What did I learn from these experiences? Danger can appear in an instant.  There’s nothing to be gained by falling apart. The time to give into the shakes is after the situation has ended. Despite these lessons, I suspect I can still learn a lot more from Alexa.

Readers: Have you ever used information that you’ve read in a book to deal with an unexpected or dangerous situation?  Do you prefer kick-ass heroines?  Or would you rather read about women who show vulnerability?

ABOUT Dead of Winter
A lighthearted trip to test a new drone turns deadly for attorney Alexa Williams
and two close friends when they find a stranger’s bullet-riddled body in a remote field in
rural Pennsylvania. Next to the dead man is a note that declares: Allahu Akbar.

When a second man is executed near Harpers Ferry, Alexa’s old flame, Reese, becomes a suspect, leading her to question just how much he changed while working in Africa. Fear of Islamic terrorism spreads like wildfire through Alexa’s small town after a third murder. When police arrest the oldest son of her Syrian refugee clients, the family becomes the focus of mounting anti-Muslim rage, and a dangerous militia group turns its sights on Alexa.

One dark night in the dead of winter, Alexa discovers who is behind the murders and must race to stop an attack that could kill hundreds. If she fails, she could lose everyone she loves.

ABOUT Sherry KnowltonSherry Knowlton is the author of the Alexa Williams series of suspense novels: Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer, Dead of Spring and the most recent release, Dead of Winter.  Passionate about books at an early age, she was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. When not writing the next Alexa Williams thriller, Knowlton works on her health care consulting business or travels around the world. She and her husband live in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania.
@sherry.knowltonbooks (Facebook)
@KnowltonSBooks (Twitter)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Austin Starr mysteries author Kay Kendall on inspiration

HALLIE EPHRON: Today we're thrilled to host the author of the Austin Starr mysteries, Kay Kendall. Kay writes historical mysteries, and her newest is a series prequel, AFTER YOU'VE GONE is set in the 1920's. The series has won won two Silver Falchion awards (Best Mystery AND Best Book!) at Killer Nashville.

Kay is here to talk about the question authors dread. And she's giving away a copy of AFTER YOU’VE GONE to one lucky commenter!

KAY KENDALL: “Where do you get your ideas?”

If you hang around with authors long enough, you’ll invariably hear one say, “Someone asked me a silly question at my book event yesterday.” Then the second will chime in. “Right, I bet it was the old stand-by, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” The third replies, “Hate answering that, and it comes up often.”

The first time I heard a conversation like that, I mentally patted myself on the back, thinking “Whew, at least I never asked that silly question.” Sure I asked plenty of others as I prepared to become a published author, but not that one.

By then I knew that ideas can float up from anywhere, often from the unlikeliest places. I was reminded of this when I read Deborah Crombie’s post here on Jungle Red last week about including maps in her mysteries. She shared examples and extolled the delights of working with her illustrator Laura to prepare maps to show the terrain of her plots.

Now, I happen to be a keen aficionado of maps. A good in-depth map thrills me. In my travels, the best I’ve seen are put out by German publishers—I swear some show every tree. Also, in the UK the Ordinance Survey maps are splendid, offered with astonishing levels of detail. While I was admiring Deborah’s maps online, I recalled other mysteries that contained maps (for example, Donna Leon’s mysteries always include maps of Venice). I was blissed out just thinking about them.

And then it hit me. I could include a map in my next mystery!
What an idea. And why had it never occurred to me before? See. Ideas can bubble up anywhere, anytime. So, thank you Deborah Crombie. 

I realize that when I write, I’m working from a mental map of the places my characters inhabit. For my first two mysteries, I used places that already existed in the cities of Toronto, Vancouver, and Seattle in the late 1960s. I consulted maps that showed streets and landmark buildings, making sure that my people were situated properly. I made nothing up.

In my new book, AFTER YOU’VE GONE—AN AUSTIN STARR MYSTERY PREQUEL, I made up a fictitious small town in Texas. I called it Gunmetal. (I checked. There isn’t one, but there is a Gun Barrel in Texas.  Of course.) I situated my town near the real ones of Cuero and Yoakum. The first time I ever saw Spanish moss on trees was when I visited cousins in Cuero, and my father was born nearby in Yoakum. While I know lots about those towns, I wanted to be free to imagine my own places and not feel bad if I were to hurt any current residents’ feelings by what I wrote. Large cities I’d written about before were different. Small towns didn’t seem like fair game.

I would’ve liked to show readers of AFTER YOU’VE GONE where Gunmetal was located on a map. Although I say in the book that Gunmetal is near Cuero, many readers will never have heard of Cuero (pop. 8,200). Likewise, when I note that Gunmetal is in-between Houston to the east and San Antonio to the southwest, this may not leap to their minds either. My mystery is set in 1923, and my amateur sleuth Wallie MacGregor and her Aunt Ida take a road trip in a brand new Buick motorcar to visit a relative in Houston, 150 miles away. In those days the trip took eight hours or more. Today it takes less than three.

I wish I’d included a map that shows the house twenty-three-year-old Wallie lives in with her father, the judge. Her real name is Walter, after her father, and her male name seems to have made her extra spunky. They live in a large Queen Ann Victorian, with an empty lot to the right and standoffish neighbors to the left—so
mean that they hate Wallie’s beagle puppy Holler on sight. Wallie takes a walk with her dad’s hunting dog across town, across the tracks to the colored part of town, where their housekeeper Athalia lives—she doesn’t have a phone. Now I long to show my readers those things on a map. And then of course there’s the location of the so-called accident that induces Wallie to prove it was murder. And I think …

Well, next time I will include a map.

Luckily for me, Vienna, Austria, is the location of my next book. Austin Starr’s grandmother Wallie flies over there in 1970 to help her granddaughter when she becomes a suspect in a grisly murder. There will be lots of beautiful historic places to situate the explosions and gun battles I have planned. And this time you will see those locations on a map—or perhaps even on two.

What are examples of books you’ve read that included maps—besides those wonderful ones by Deborah Crombie? And are any of you location challenged? My super smart gal pal is and could get lost in a ladies room in a hotel. She can’t even read a map, although she got all A’s in college. Is anyone else like that? 

And a copy of AFTER YOU’VE GONE to one lucky commenter!

Kay Kendall writes the Austin Starr mystery series ( ). After You've Gone (February 2019) is a prequel featuring Austin Starr’s grandmother who comes of age during the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. This amateur sleuth searches for the killer of her uncle—who just happens to be a famous rumrunner in Texas. The first two Austin Starr books capture the spirit and turbulence of the 1960s. Desolation Row (2013) and Rainy Day Women (2015) show Austin as a young Texas bride, forced to the frontlines of societal change by her draft-resisting husband. Austin copes by turning amateur sleuth. The latter mystery won two Silver Falchion Awards in 2016 at Killer Nashville. In all her fiction, Kay shows how patterns of human nature repeat down the decades, no matter what historical age one reads about.

Before Kay began to write fiction, she was an award-winning international public relations executive, working in the US, Canada, the Soviet Union, and Europe. Ask her about working in Moscow during the Cold War. She and her Canadian husband live in Texas with three rescue rabbits and one bemused spaniel. She is president of the Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. /  
Kay blogs monthly on 3rd Wednesday of each month at ##