Monday, January 31, 2011

You Are What You Eat?

ROBERTA: At the beginning of January, I was lucky enough to attend the Key West Literary Seminar, this year focused on food writing and called The Hungry Muse. Such fun to hear the likes of Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, Calvin Trillin, Billy Collins, and Judith Jones talk about writing and food. Judith Jones, if you don't know, "discovered" Julia Child and served as her editor for many years. Fascinating to hear her talk about the old days and how cooking and food writing have exploded since Julia wrote her first cookbook.

Besides being great fun, all this was in the service of researching background material for my new character, food critic Hayley Snow. Hayley is, naturally, a good cook and an enthusiastic eater. So there will be many meals enjoyed in the new series. But I also realized that all of my characters have been food-centric. Cassie Burdette, the aspiring pro golfer, had no kitchen skills and a horrible diet but she still enjoyed eating. (I was once asked to contribute a recipe from her collection. She offered her company special, Hot Dog Casserole.) Psychologist Rebecca Butterman was an excellent cook--she liked nurturing herself and her friends with delicious meals and even interrogating suspects after luring them to dinner.

So the question for this Monday, Jungle Red Eaters--I mean writers: What are your characters' relationships to food? Is food a big factor in your books?

HANK: Oh, what a great question. IN fact, in FACE TIME, there was a time in the early part of the book where I needed some conflict--not big big conflict, but beginning of the book conflict. SO--I made Charlotte McNally hungry. And then have low blood sugar. And you know how that feels-everything becomes incredibly difficult and all you can think of is FOOD. Then as it turned out, being hungry became the complete key to the whole mystery. (More I cannot say.) But just that one random moment of choosing "food" as the conflict--made the entire book.

ROSEMARY: I think there's a lot of food in my books. In Pushing Up Daisies, Paula has just moved from the city to the suburbs. As a city girl she was mindful about every morsel of food that went into her body. She was a little bit of a pill about it! Hanging out at the diner, she's eased up a bit. It was actually a conscious effort on my part as a way of showing one of the ways that she's changed. Yes, she still works out but bring on those pancakes! In the last book there's almost a Tom Jones-like scene with a piece of olive oil almond cake (which is a real Giada recipe.) If I like to eat it, it just may wind up in a book.

HALLIE: Oh, Roberta, one of my favorite things about you is that you love-love-love good food. So jealous about the Key West seminar! I so would have loved to be there, even though in my new book (COME AND FIND ME) Diana Highsmith is a depressed shut-in who she eats because she has to. Food for her is oatmeal, apples, American cheese. I'm such a foodie, I had to give her something good, so she also likes rum raisin ice cream, my favorite, and which lasts more than a night in our freezer because no one else in the house can stand it.

But a short story ("Death in the Family") I wrote recently for a Spanish anthology has a character who remembers her mother's death by lighting a candle, drinking a toast of chilled Prosecco, and eating a Dungeness crab. Forget the eulogies, that's exactly how I want to go out!

JAN: Rosemary, I love Giada's recipes I even have one of her books - which is terrific. In A Confidential Source, Hallie is under such stress that I couldn't imagine her eating anything. A good friend of mine read it and noted that she seemed anorexic, so I went back and gave her a few meals. And in subsequent books, she hangs around Wayland Square diner and likes to breakfast on BLTs and rye toast. But despite the fact that cooking is one of my favorite hobbies -- food does not play a major role in my books. At least not so far.

HALLIE: Jan, didn't "Hallie" keep warming up canned tomato soups? That's what I remember.

RHYS: I love reading about food. Books like Under a Tuscan Sun and the description of Italian meals eaten in a shady courtyard can create such a powerful yearning in me that I have to be restrained from hopping on the next plane. I do try to bring some of this into my books. Food has beoome an important factor in the Royal Spyness books as Georgie is penniless and reduced to eating baked beans on toast, and then attends 12 course banquets which are overwhelming to her. I hope to focus on life in a kitchen in a future book--maybe have Georgie disguised as a maid, so we can see what goes on there.

DEB: I LOVE food. Eating food, writing about food, reading about food. I think my favorite book last year was Julia Child's A Life in France. It was all I could do to keep from hopping on a plane to Paris . . .

Food is such an important part of the sensory complex that makes stories seem real. That said, I've never centered a book around food, although I had great
fun with Scotch in Now May You Weep. In the meantime, my characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking tea or coffee, because it gives them something to do when they're interviewing suspects or witnesses or discussing the case. And Gemma has an ongoing battle with the AGA!

Rhys, I would love a peek at the kitchen in a grand house! (Oh, and Hallie, rum raisin is my fave, too.)

ROBERTA: Deb, that was one of my favorite books of the past year too--what an adventure she made of her life! How about you, JR readers, do you like reading about food? And if you write, how does it figure in your books?

Be sure and stay tuned right here all week. Tomorrow for True Crime Tuesday, Allison Leota will be with us to answer questions about the law from readers. And on Wednesday, meet Diana Abu-Jaber, a fabulous writer here to talk about her culinary memoir, THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA. And more fun later in the week too...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Writers' Challenge 2011 WEEK TWO

JAN: Confession -- All my discipline fell apart on Thursday.

The good news is that late Wednesday evening, I finished my draft - YAY! It's my second draft, which involved a lot of changes, so it's an accomplishment. But it still needs a go-through. Nothing structural, but some cutting, filling in, and making the voice consistent. So it's not like I actually REALLY finished for good.

Still - I was both high and bleary eyed when I finished. And Thursday morning, I just couldn't get up and write. Nothing could make me. Plus I had a lot of catching up to do on the stuff I wasn't doing while I was writing, bill paying, laundry, getting my schedule in order - and the most time consuming, the annual doctor's physical. So I gave myself the day off and wrote that evening instead. Until ten p.m., but it was tough sledding and I wasn't especially productive.

It's hard because most of what I have to do now are the tedious changes. Friday I didn't start until nearly two o'clock, and did not WRITE FIRST. But I did write. I promise to be back in the saddle -- writing first by Monday.

I hope to hear you were all far superior to me!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Hey, I'm the consumer here!

RHYS: I hope I'm allowed a Saturday gripe occasionally. Maybe I'm feeling a tad crabby because I've been trying to get work done with one hand that still won't rotate to face the keyboard properly. But also because I've had a couple of encounters with doctor's offices and labs in the past week.
When it was twenty minutes past my appointment I asked the receptionist if I had been forgotten. "No, he'll get to you," she replied off handedly. When I saw the doctor he asked if I'd been fasting for a blood test. "Nobody mentioned a blood test," I said. He checked the records and I was right. "Never mind, come back tomorrow," he said merrily.

So I left in not the best of moods. It is my time that's being squandered and you know what? I'm the consumer. Nobody is doing me a favor by trying to fit me in to an appointment. I am paying for the doctor's time.

We now live in a society that is so equal and pc that we don't want to offend anybody. So if the plumber is late and leaves marks on our white carpet we say nothing, scared that he'll walk out and leave us with a clogged toilet until we find another plumber who will charge a hundred dollars an hour and grace us with his time when he feels like it.

Same with airlines. We are spoken to like naughty children when we are paying the wages of those counter staff and cabin crews. I once pointed out to a flight attendant that she would be out of a job if I didn't fly and the rest of the passengers didn't fly and the only reason she was on the plane was to make me feel happy and secure.

Now that jobs are hard to come by, maybe we can speak out a little more. If I don't show up for a doctor's appointment, they bill me for the no-show. If they keep me waiting half an hour, there should be a way for me to deduct money for my lost time. If the plane is late because one of the crew members hasn't shown up, ditto. If the plumber is late, he should be told "don't bother."

It is time for CONSUMERS UNITE. Okay? Only I don't want to be the first one to tell a six foot five, four hundred pound man with stubble and a butt crack,wielding a wrench, that his services are no longer required.

How to Succeed in Writing without really trying!

Every writer who publishes her first book dreams it will be a mega success. The new writer naively believes that the publisher will pour enormous amounts of money into publicity, buy ads in the New York Times and everyone in the world will want to rush out and buy the book.

By the second book the sober truth dawns--for the majority of writers there will be little or no support from the publisher in the matter of publicity. If we don't work to promote our own books, nobody in the world will hear about them. And so we grope blindly in the darkness, trying to come up with brilliant ideas to make us rich and famous, while not costing an arm and a leg. Private publicist--the good ones cost two arms and two legs. Self funded book tour all over the country? Most bookstores aren't even interested in the fledgling writer because it costs money to host an event and they want a guarantee that books will actually be sold.
We join writers organizations and try to pick the bones of established writers, wanting to know what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately they are none the wiser. Some books are just lucky--they hit the shelves at the right time, they touch a nerve with the public and they are best sellers.

Be we keep trying anyway. We try postcards and bookmarks, pens with our names on them. Buttons with cute sayings. We wear funny hats to conventions. We offer to speak to womens luncheons for free.

Well, finally I have the answer. And it is: cupcakes!

I hosted a cozy writers panel last sunday and one of the panelists, Jennifer McKinlay, writes a series featuring a cupcake shop. AND SHE BROUGHT CUPCAKES for show and tell! And guess what? We had a huge audience and she sold a ton of books. In fact her books have made it to the New York Times extended list!
So now I know what I've been doing wrong. In my next book Her Royal Spyness Lady Georgie is going to join forces with her best friend Belinda and open a frightfully genteel tea room at which cupcakes are sold. And I'll have samples everywhere I go. I'll be a mega success!

But joking apart, in uncertain times like these many readers seek out books that represent comfort and security. Craft cozies, about quilt making and knitting are thriving. And comfort food books--cookies and cupcakes are doing even better. It's easy to understand why. How great to be surrounded by virtual cupcakes, to enjoy reading about them without putting on any calories!
So, fellow writers--do you have any tips to share on promotions that have worked for you? or any that have been simply not worth the time and effort?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oh, to be in England

RHYS: One of the things I miss most about England is its timeless quaintness. As an ex-pat one notices the weird and wonderful quirks of Britishness more than those who live there all the time.
One of the other panelists on my cozy mystery panel last Sunday was Hannah Dennison and she feels that same nostalgia for the silliness of England. Hannah writes the Vicky Hill mysteries set in the fictitious English country village of Gipping on Plym. Vicky is a reporter, supposedly stuck with writing obituaries, but each of the books features one of those quaint and anachronistic pastimes that still abound in the English countryside.

I thought of Hannah last week when I read an article in an English newspaper about the last surviving Mud Sled Fisherman. Okay, so picture this—a long wooden sled on which the fisherman lies, propelling himself over the mud by his feet until he reaches the ocean. He then attaches nets to little posts and strings them along the water’s edge, in the hope of trapping shrimp in them. Several hours later he will propel himself back out to the nets to see what he has caught. As an efficient, twenty-first century method of conducting a business, I think we can all pretty much see that this is sadly lacking. The man’s sons have expressed no interest in following him into the business—a fact that he understands but laments. And so the craft will die with him. In future the shrimp of the Bristol Channel will have to wait to be sucked up by giant Russian factory ships, along with everything else that swims, crawls or lies in the ocean.

Fortunately not all crazy pastimes are dying in England. In fact some are thriving as Hannah has found out when she researches her books. Snail racing is still going great guns, for one thing. As is stuffing a ferret down your trousers and seeing who is man enough to endure it longest. In East Anglia, that flat area of dykes, and waterways, there is the sport of ditch jumping. The participants run at a dyke, plant a pole and vault across. If they don’t make it, they get wet and muddy.

But that is marginally better than the sport of hedge jumping, which Hannah featured in her first Vicky Hill novel. Competitors leap over all kinds of hedges ranging from privet (easy) to hawthorn (spiky). She met one man who preferred to fling himself over backward in what he called “The Crucifixion Position.”
There was an attempt at synchronized hedge jumping but it proved too destructive to hedges. And I promise I’m not making this up.

Various villages have all kinds of races. The egg and spoon race is fairly normal, as is the pancake race on Shrove Tuesday. But most dangerous so far is the tar barrel racing in which competitors sprint through the village holding aloft in one hand a barrel of burning tar and hoping that they don’t spill it all over themselves.

So you see why I love writing about the UK, even if I choose to live in the US. I prefer a life style in which things run smoothly and efficiently but sometimes I wish that the city of Phoenix Arizona would conduct the occasional snail race….

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kate Carlisle and the State of the Cozy

I've got good news for many of our Jungle Red devotees--the cozy is alive and well. Flourishing, in fact. I got proof of this the other day at Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale AZ where I moderated a panel of three fabulous cozy writers: Kate Carlisle, Hannah Dennison and Jen McKinlay.
And we had an audience of over 50 on a glorious sunny Sunday afternoon. The three women had three things in common: they write cozies, they are all attractive AND they are funny.
One of the questions I asked the writers was about the term "cozy" and how they felt about being dubbed "cozy writers." Kate was the first to respond. She said, "I also write romances and they are so looked down upon that anything else is a step up." This was typical of her dry, self deprecating humor.

So I had to spend more time over a cup of tea with her and conduct a little interview.

RHYS: Tell me how you came to be a writer

KATE: I used to tell outlandish stories as a child, as a result of which I was sent to be educated by the nuns. But I've come to writing after twenty years in TV.

RHYS: TV? How glamorous. Were you writing for Law and Order?

KATE: Actually I was an assistant on the Gong Show, performing strange and silly stunts. I was also sent all over the world as a chaperon on The Dating Game.

RHYS: Lots of good material for future murder mysteries there, I suspect. So what made you decide to leave the glamor of the Gong Show and write books?

KATE: I tried toiling in a vinyard, selling fried chicken, joining a commune, modeling clothes, but it was when I spent a year in law school that I finally thought about killing my professors.

RHYS: Tell us about your mystery series.

KATE: My heroine is Brooklyn Wainwright, a restorer of rare books in San Francisco, which I chose because it's a city I love and I now get to go there for research. The latest book is called The Lies that Bind and this time Brooklyn's boyfriend seems to be involved in the murder she is solving.
RHYS: Are you a restorer of rare books yourself?
KATE: I am. It's one of my interests, but I'm not as expert as Brooklyn.
RHYS: All three of the Bibliophile mysteries have appeared on the New York Times extended bestseller list, and you've also won a Golden Heart and a Daphne du Maurier award so you've risen to the top very quickly.
KATE: If you think I'm an overnight success, then read the real story on my website, I talk about my struggles with bad hair and an overactive imagination.

RHYS: Yes, do read it, it is hilarious and gives you some idea why this lady's mysteries have become popular so quickly. And Kate's romances are also flourishing. Since her next Brooklyn book will have to do with a rare copy of the Karma Sutra, we suspect that Kate is meticulous in her research for those books too.

But back to Cozies. I have a problem with the name myself, especially when it is stretched to include all non-violent, non-noir mysteries. Under the terminology Julia and Deborah write cozies. My historical mysteries are classed as cozy (of course Georgie is, but Molly?) So all you cozy writers out there--do you think the label makes us the Rodney Dangerfield of mystery writing? Do you mind being thus labeled? Can you come up with a better term?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Great Bank Robbery of 2011

RHYS: It's True Crime Tuesday again.

We have often commented on this blog that true crimes rarely match up to the ones we create on the page. It's rare to find the fiendishly dashing villain who masterminds a brilliant crime. Usually they are sordid, bungled affairs carried out by not-very smart individuals with not a Moriarty among them.

So my spirits were raised by a true crime that happened a couple of weeks ago that reads like a Hollywood script.
Thieves rent a building, dig a hole from their basement into a neighboring bank's security vault, and quietly break in and make off with the goods.
Is it Hollywood or real life? Both, actually. On New Year's Eve in Argentina's capital, a band of thieves tunneled through a 100-foot-hole into a neighboring bank and stole the contents of up to 140 safety deposit boxes. Nobody was harmed.
The spectacular robbery seems to come straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Red-Headed League," about thieves attempting to tunnel into a pawnbroker's basement. This robbery was particularly well executed--the thieves rented the next door business and ran it as a store for several months while they dug the tunnel. The tunnel was lit, ventilated and even carpeted. It is also suspected that someone working for the bank was in on the heist and had provided the plans of the bank's basement (which the bank's executives didn't seem to know they possessed, for some reason).
I have to confess that I've always had a thing about bank robberies. I suppose it's because of my love affair with the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid--aided by a brilliant script and the eye candy of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I suspect that I'm not alone in my admiration for someone who can pull off a truly clever heist--the Topkapi kind of crime. Many people seem to find bank robbers clever and dashing and glamorous (as long as they don't hurt or kill people) and actually cheer for them if they get away. Bonnie and Clyde, Derringer, Butch and Sundance--all became folk heroes akin to Robin Hood. I suppose because stealing from a bank is perceived to be robbing the rich (although it's actually our money they take).

I sometimes wish I wrote thrillers because I'd enjoy plotting out a really clever jewel or art heist--or maybe a story about tunneling into a bank in Argentina. So how about you--are there any criminals and crimes that you secretly admire?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's in a Name

RHYS: A rose by any other name will smell as sweet, but would you feel as strongly about the heroine of a mystery or thriller called Ethel or Ermintrude, or a hero called Cyril or Archibald? Let's face it, we judge people by their names. We expect a Tiffany or an Ashley to be more airheaded than a Kate or a Jane. Which is why the names we choose for our characters are so important.I've been thinking about this because I've just started a new book, which means another set of names. At least I'm lucky that I have my series characters in place so It is only the occasional characters that need naming. I'm also lucky that my story takes place in 1903 so I am supposed to use old fashioned names, some of which were fashionable then, but quaint and ugly now. Would you consider calling your daughter Blanche or Flossie? There were actresses called both in Edwardian times.

I once attended a panel at a mystery convention called Kiss Me, Kate. It was composed of Laurie King, Val McDermid and Dana Stabenow--three good friends who all have heroines called Kate. In fact I suspect that if you did some research you'd come up with more Kates as mystery heroines than any other name. Why is this? Because we think of Kates as no-nonsense, capable women: Katherine Hepburn, The Taming of the Shrew, and we want a heroine who will be plucky and unflappable and track down the murderer behaving the way we would like to in our fantasies.In many ways we want our heroine to be as gutsy as any guy, hence the number of Sams and Charlies and other masculine-sounding names. I admit to a Lady Georgie so I'm part of this group, but I didn't choose it consciously to sound masculine. I wanted her to be called Georgiana because I liked the name and it sounded aristocratic.

Only occasionally have I made careful conscious choices over a character's name. Darcy O'Mara was one of them. I wanted to create an archetypal hero and the vision that came to mind was Colin Firth, as Mr. Darcy, coming out of that lake, soaking wet. So Darcy he became. I have fun with a lot of names in that series because the British have so many silly names. So I've had a Hugo Beasley-Bottome (which was misprinted once as Beastly-Bottom) and in Royal Blood I have a horsy, pushy woman called Lady Middlesex, and her companion Miss Deer-Harte. . So I'm curious--how do you choose character names? Do they just come to you? Do you agonize over them ? Have you experienced, as I have, a character who doesn't seem to be jelling well suddenly say to you, "Why do you keep calling me Richard? My name is Paul." And then you realize that of course he is Paul and everything starts flowing. Have you ever named a character with a name you've come to hate? How important are names to you?

JAN: I'm insanely opinionated when it comes to names -- I've even made friends change names in their books because I just couldn't work with them. How inflexible is that? I also get into trouble in real life because if I've just met you and think you look like a Cathy when you're name is Darrah, I'll keep thinking of you as Cathy. Even if you look like a Cathy to me, and your name actually is Cathy, I'll hesitate before I ever call you by name because I'm not sure if you really are a Cathy, or if I'm making it up.
Cathy's, by the way, should always be blonde. Also Karens, Kate's, basically any "K" or "C" name. A Patty should always have dark hair, even though one of my best friends is a blondish Patty. Mostly names just "come" to me. But I struggled for weeks over what to call Hallie Ahern's love interest. I finally went with Matt. For me, men are the hardest to name. Common names seem not unique enough. Unique names often seem contrived, un-masculine, or like a soap opera name. Nick names can come in handy.

HANK: Flossie, I love Flossie. (What was that childrens book--Freddie and Flossie?) ANd I'm Harriet, so don't talk to me about old fashioned.
I think the name-choice thing is SO important, and so critical. Charlotte (Charlie) McNally came to me fully formed--her dear "Josh Gelston" was the result of weeks of agony looking for a tough, strong, non-trendy first name: Ben? Jake? Sam? Matt? Luke? And a religion-neutral last name. SO difficult! I worried and worried over it. And then after the book came out, I got an a mail from someone named Josh Gelston!
My main name problem is that all my instant-choices begin with C or M. I was trying to think of a new main character, and had what I thought was a HUGE brainstorm! The perfect name! And it was: Callie. All righty then, not exactly different enough from Charlie. Now I keep a list, with the letters of the alphabet down one side, and plug in names as they come to me. SO everyone doesn't begin with the same letter.

ROBERTA: Since I'm working on the first book of a new series, I've had a whole slew of names to come up with. (Gosh, I sure hope they pass Jan's test...) And funny, now that you mention it, another friend (okay Hallie, if you must know:), suggested I change a character's name in A TASTE FOR MURDER. I swear this happened only yesterday...
This fellow is a tarot card reader who sets up a booth at the Sunset Celebration in Key West every night. My protagonist (Hayley Snow) often consults him for direction. I named him "Marvin." So Hallie says: "Marvin doesn't strike me as the name of a tarot card reader, can't you call him something like Lorenzo? Marvin sounds like your great-uncle or an elderly neighbor."
Marvin's a little appalled about his impending name change, but I certainly don't want readers struggling to remember who the heck he is when he comes up in conversation. And that's key, right?--make the names that tag characters distinct enough so a sleepy or distracted reader doesn't have to work too hard to keep them straight.

ROSEMARY: I love it when I hit on the right name for a character - my favorite, other than Paula Holliday, which I think is perfect for my heroine, was Guido Chiaramonte. It just rolled off the tongue. Chiaramonte is a town in Sicily. I wanted an Italian name that we hadn't heard a million times before so I looked at a map.But I generally have a hard time with names and frequently keep changing them until I'm halfway through the book. I rationalize this by telling myself that only by that time have they truly revealed themselves to me. In Slugfest, I had auctioned off so many names for charity that I barely had to think about it.Terry Ward, Jean Moffitt, John Stancik - great names! Kris Archimbault, if you're out there, you're in the next book.

HALLIE: Oh, Ro, it's so nice to hear that someone else keeps changing her character names. I'm thinking of doing a search and replace of a character in my Work in Progress, from Evie to Abby.
It's why I don't use short names. Like Ted. I once search-and-replaced, making a Ted a Brian, and ended with: "Lillian reporBrianed..." instead of "Lillian reported..." and "belatedly" became "belaBrianly." It was a mess.

ROSEMARY: Same thing happened to me when I changed Dan to Hank (a male.) What a nightmare. Good tip to avoid the short ones. I just had to change Tina to Toni - because I'm bringing a secondary character from the third book named Nina - I didn't want to have a Tina and a Nina! Nina Mazzo (another great charity auction name)is making an encore performance.
Something in the air...I have an Abby in the book I'm writing now, but it's about five women and after four books and so many female characters, I feel as if I've used most of the names I really like. Do the people who've written twenty books worry about this stuff?

DEB: After fourteen books, naming characters is a nightmare! It's not only trying to figure out what works for the character--as hard for me as it is for the rest of you--but then I have to check that the names don't sound alike (Nina-Tina) or that I have too many characters whose names start with the same letter (Robert, Richard, Ryan). Then I have to make sure that the name I'm using was popular, or at least in use, at the time the character was born. I have an old copy of the Guiness Book of Names which is fabulous. It gives the fifty most popular girls' and boys' names in the US and in the UK every five years from 1850 to 1985. But after '85 I'm sunk. . .
THEN comes the fourteen book issue. Have I used the name before??? And because I write fairly long and complicated books, chances are that I have. So if the names of my characters get odder and odder, you'll know why . . .
AND then, when I think I've got it all worked out, I discover I've done something really stupid. In the book I just finished, I named a character after a very well known (although obviously not to me!) British comedian. My British friends threw up their hands in horror. "You can't call him THAT!!!!"
Thank God for search-and-replace.

JULIA: Deb, Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran have a series of baby name books that I've collected and use religiously. They're called " Beyond Jennifer and Jason," "Beyond Ava and Aiden," etc. Each book has a lengthy section on naming patterns from the past (starting in the early 20th century) and is also excellent as a resource for currently trendy, ethnic and European names. I'm a bug about getting names right for the place (lots of Scots and Dutch names in the part of NY I write about) and for the age of the character. Nothing will snap me out of a book faster than a hip young 20-something named Doris or a sweet little old lady named Kayla.

I also agree with Ro--I love using names from charitable auctions! In the past, I've wound up creating characters I didn't expect to have, and changing the course of the novel. For instance, I auctioned off a character for a fundraiser for my children's parochial school. The winner wanted me to use her unmarried aunt's name: Lucia Pirrone. Well, there aren't a lot of really Italian names in Millers Kill, NY, so she became Sister Lucia, newly arrived in the Adirondacks to minister to migrant workers, and she met the Rev. Clare Fergusson at a luncheon, and I was off and running with the plot of I SHALL NOT WANT

.My last word on names is my own. I've just finished signing a box of front sheets (to be bound into the new book for "signed by author" copies)and after inscribing J-U-L-I-A-S-P-E-N-C-E-R-hyphen-F-L-E-M-I-N-G one thousand times, my hand feels like it's going to fall off. So if I ever write in another genre, I'm doing it as Jo Leu.

RHYS: I've also auctioned off character names many times and I'm always scared I'll wind up having to use an impossible name--a Brandi or Kylie in 1903, or a strongly ethnic name in my royal circles. So far I've made it work, even using the names of three sisters called Jensen, Danika and Reagan in one of the Royal Spyness books. And Deb, I find if I'm not careful I use the same name for more than one character.

So let's hear from all of you out there--do character names matter to you? Would Poirot or Sam Spade or Rumpold be as effective with other names?

And isn't it great to have our new JUNGLE REDs joining in their first discussion? We are so lucky to have them on board...

Writers' Challenge 2011 WEEK ONE

JAN: So I completed my first week of the Challenge and am feel just so superior to my old self (which is really the reason we do these, right?) even though I had to cheat, just a little.

The admission: Because it was my blog week, I had, just had, to go online and peek at Jungle Red Writers to make sure the blog I posted for the next day actually went live. This turned out to be a good thing because one day I'd screwed up the AM/PM thing and the blog hadn't posted yet, so I had to go in and fix it. But I immediately started writing after that and MOST IMPORTANTLY, for me, I didn't check email.

The tools: I used my I-Phone to time myself and a chart (printing out the weekly calendar on the computer) to track the time spent writing without Internet interruption. Once I got a phone call I had to take, so I stopped the timer and restarted it. The only problem with the I-PHONE timer going off was that it reminded me it was now okay to check email, when I might have gone on longer without noticing. The chart was not as much as a motivator as I had hoped (Sorry Hank), but I'm going to give it another week.

Productivity: Hard to gauge because I'm rewriting and while I rewrote more actual pages last week, I was also rewriting a part of the book that didn't need much rewriting. Now I'm revising the end which needs a lot of work. But I'm loving the time length instead of page quote because I'm slowing down to really think about character reaction and word choice -- where I wouldn't if I were trying to make a quote.

How about you? Share your success and challenges! And if you're on Twitter and want to share there use #JRWRITE FIRST. (But you have to comment here three times here on Sunday's JRW blog to be entered in prize contest. I can't keep track of Twitter too!)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Brain test, maybe.

Have you seen this? Look for the man in the coffee beans. If you can find him within three seconds, you supposedly have a highly developed right brain. If it takes you between three seconds and a minute, you have a normally developed right brain. If it takes you longer than three minutes, or if you can't find it at all, you need to work at developing that part of your brain -- and maybe eat more protein.
It's fun, but likely one of those email scams. Especially since the authority quoted in the email a very generic "doctors say." Not even the almost as generic, "researchers say."
I found him immediately. Like in a second or two. Am I highly right brained? Or did my gaze happen to land on him as I opened the email? Even more likely......all that time I spent with my son reading those "Where's Waldo" books, just finally paid off.
How did you do? How likely is it that it means anything? And what's protein got to do with it?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Do you believe in dreams?

JAN: Last week I had a dream that I was looking for my son, who was two-years old and hiding in a room.(it was an attic room with a slanted roof ) I was searching under the couch, but couldn't find him. In the way of dreams, I suddenly realized that my son wasn't two anymore, but twenty-one and six-foot three. No way could he hide under the couch or inside the window seat.

I woke up, not frightened, but uneasy enough to email my son at college and ask if he was okay.

Why? It's not like I have ever experienced prescience. Never in my life have I ever predicted something that actually came true.

According to PSYBLOG, which is my favorite blog, I inadvertently subscribe to the "Freudian" view of dreams -- which is to say that dreams have meaning.

Except, I don't really. The attic room in the dream was my daughter's bedroom in our old house. I know dreams are just pulled from the scrap heap of my memories and thoughts. Sometimes the dreams are so incredibly superficial and banal that I keep those dreams to myself. And yet -- I still emailed my son to make sure he was okay.

PSYBLOG reported that two researchers, Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton, conducted an international study on the way people view dreams. They asked participants who subscribed to the "Freudian" view of dreams, as well as those who rejected the "Freudian" view of dreams, to imagine they were taking a flight tomorrow and that the night before three things happened.

1. They consciously thought about the plane crashing en route as the route they were going to take.
2. They had a dream the plane would crash.
3. A real plane had crashed on the route the night before.

The participants were asked which of these events were most likely to make them cancel their flight.

The Freudians, of course, said the dream about a crash would be the biggest motivator to cancel. The majority of non-Freudians said the actual crash would be the biggest motivator, but it was only a slim majority. And even the non-Freudians said they would be more influenced by the dream than by the wide-awake "conscious" imagining of a plane crash.

In other words, the majority of people gave some sort of credence to the dream. The study, found that this belief in dream's predictive power was strongest in the U.S., - where 56 percent of people think this way about dreams, South Korea and India.

One of the cultural reasons suggested for this strong, stubborn belief in the power of dreams is the way dreams are portrayed in books, films and TV. As an author, I instantly recognized this as true. We only include a dream in a book to make it mean something.

I'm not a big fan of dreams in books, and if you are in my writer's group, I write big red X's over your long-winded dream. But, even I have used snippets of dreams to show a character's worst fears. And because my books have thriller endings, my character's worst fears often turn out to be true - on some level.

So how about the rest of you writers out there? Guilty as charged? And readers, do you believe in dreams? Maybe even when you don't want to?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hallie's book becomes a movie!

JAN: As many of you may know, Hallie's terrific thriller, Never Tell a Lie, has been made into a movie. And Baby Will Fall premiers at 8 p.m, Sunday night (1/23) on the Lifetime Movie Network.

Like the book, the movie is about a young married couple about to have their first baby. When they clean out their house and hold a yard sale, a classmate from high school shows up and disappears inside their Victorian fixer upper, wreaking havoc on their lives. I asked Hallie, who has seen a rough cut of the movie, what it like was like to witness her characters come to life.

HALLIE: Ivy Rose, (the protagonist) isn’t physically the way I envisioned. I thought of Ivy as tall and long-looking -- in all dimensions -- early Cher, with long dark hair. My vision of her was -- she wasn't a beauty, but she was the kind of of woman you looked at twice, because she was interesting.

In the movie version, Ivy, played by actress Anastasia Griffith,is blond. She's kind of cute, but not beautiful. I was very quickly over “but she’s a blonde" issue. Anastasia is fabulous. This actress really got the character. I felt her vulnerability and her determination not to be victim, which was what I wanted for Ivy. And her confusion. And how upsetting it all was.

And I thought the actor who played Ivy's husband, David, Brendan Fehr, was terrific, too. He’s sweet and loving and strong. And completely baffled and still he’s hiding something. I just felt the two of them and the dynamic were spot on.

JAN: How about the plot? Were there many changes?
HALLIE: The plot changed a lot. In the screenplay, they simplified, took out some subplots – which I expected. The ending is different and I’m not sure how I feel about it. But I understand why they did it. My ending was open and ambigious, leaving it for the reader to decide. There is no subtlely in the movie ending. It’s very clear who is culpable.

JAN: How about the setting, which was such an important part of the book.
HALLIE: I set the book in Milton (Massachusetts) although I called it Brush Hills. The movie isn’t set in New England. It looks like it could be New England, but it could be anywhere. They did a good job with the house, though. In the book, the house is a big Victorian. And for the movie, they used a Victorian exterior. It feels right.

JAN: What was your favorite part of the movie?
HALLIE: Let's see... that it was made. And that they nailed the relationship between Ivy and David. And how lies and distrust can poison a relationship. I thought they really got that even if they changed the title. And I like that it's very suspenseful. It really moves along and makes you want to keep watching. What I wanted in my book was for the reader say: What is going on here?And they do a good job with that. It’s quite compelling.

JAN: If you could change one thing about the movie, what would you change?
HALLIE: Maybe the interior of the house, I had a number of details in the book, like the stained glass and the window seat, that aren't in the movie version of the house. I miss the space. The house is a really important character in the book, less so in the movie.

JAN: Your parents were both famous screenwriters, and all three of her sisters, Nora, Delia and Amy are screenwriters. Did this affect your critique of the screenwriting in And Baby Will Fall, or your expectations about how the movie would be made?

HALLIE: I think that background -- everything I already knew about how movies are made, gave me low expectations. I knew that when you write a novel and you sell it, you don’t own it anymore. And unless you are Dennis Lehane, no one is going to ask what you think. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much they respected the original story.

JAN: So the author gives this film a big thumbs up! Don't forget -- 8 p.m. Sunday night, on the Lifetime Movie Channel To see a trailer or learn more:

And come back tomorrow, when I'm going to be talking about the relative importance of dreams in our novels, in our psyche and why we persist in seeing dreams as predictors of the future. And it's not too late to join the Writers' Challenge -- make sure to check in this Sunday. (check the 1/16 blog for rules)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is Simon Wood Completely Bonkers?

HANK: Okay, so listen to this.

Let's say you wanted to write a crime fiction novel. What would you do? Short version: You'd get a computer, or a pad of paper, think of a story, write it down somehow, and hope a publisher buys it.

But not our Simon.

He has an idea---and he: writes a book, called LOWLIFES. So far, so typical. But then with a collaborator, he also does a short film. And a blog. And a whole bunch of other stuff. And then readers/viewers are supopsed to read/view all of it in whatever order, getting different secrets and insights and viewpoints from different parts. Put it all together, and...

Okay, my head is hurting. But it's brilliant. And trust me, Reds, this is the future. And it's called Transmedia. Simon Wood is here to explain it all!

HANK: Whoa. Tell us about your new project. Most authors just..write a book…

SIMON WOOD: LOWLIFES is a collaboration between filmmaker, Robert Pratten, and me, where we tell a story from different character points of view using various media. The book tells the story from point of view of the protagonist, a San Francisco Police Inspector.

The short film gives the viewpoint of a PI investigating the cop.

The fictional blog catalogs the thoughts and feelings of the cop’s estranged wife.

In the print edition, there's a secret short story told from the point of a view of a street preacher which can be accessed QR codes and the story emailed to your cell phone. The trendy term for this new kind of storytelling is transmedia.

HANK: Like I said. Whoa. (What's a QR code? Anyone? Anyone? Am I incredibly OLD? Oh--quick response. Yay for research. ) Sounds like 3-d chess. How did you guys work all this out? Were you and Robert Pratten pals? How did it evolve?

SIMON: I met Robert in Phoenix in 2003 at a conference when he was screening his first film and we stayed in touch ever since. Robert approached me about a year ago with the idea for multimedia story set in San Francisco’s tenderloin district. He gave me brief character profiles for the principal characters and the initial scenario of a cop investigating himself and his possible involvement in the death of a homeless man.

HANK: . Which came first? Or did you build each part as it went along and finish all at the same time?

SIMON: I am one of those people who tries to do everything at once, but I wrote the book first, the movie script second and the blog third. However, I did outline all three storylines before I wrote anything so that I knew how all three stories would intersect. As I completed each part, I handed them off to Robert for comment and edit. So there were a few changes made and gave Robert free reign to interpret my movie script any way he wanted when it came to imagery and filming locations.

HANK: . Yikes. I mean, yikes. Does each part make sense without the other part? Do you read and see them serially, or all at the same time?

SIMON: Robert’s main instruction was that each individual piece could be read as a standalone piece, but when read/watched in conjunction, the combined pieces would give a much fuller telling of the story. Our primary aim was to avoid filming scenes directly lifted from the book or blog and vice versa.

HANK: Transmedia. I'm thinking about this. Did working this way change the way your brain works? (It's making my head hurt...)

SIMON: Yes, it changed how my brain worked. I’m used to writing multiple points of view in my novels, so having differing perspectives to tell a story wasn’t a problem. The brain stretching came when to telling the story for different media. This was the first time I’d written a script and I hadn’t appreciated telling a story visually. Even the dialog had to be written in a way that would inspire or assist Robert with the filming. The blog was different again because it’s written in a very conversation style and at the same time, there's a confessional quality to it. At times, it did make my head hurt. To make all the individual pieces work took a lot of planning.

HANK: Forgive me, do people buy this? Talk a little about marketing and promotion.

SIMON: is a dedicated website where people can experience the various facets of the story. Right now, we’re releasing it as a serial for free. Each day, a chapter from the book, a movie episode and/or entry from the blog will come available. People can sign up to receive the excerpts. If people don’t want to wait, they can buy the book, the DVD or download the book from Amazon, etc. There are links on the website.

HANK: What's been the reaction?

SIMON: It’s early days, but good so far. A couple of publishers interested to see how the concept develops. Someone else expressed interest in putting Lowlifes out as a complete interactive book. Readers are just getting to grips with it. Robert and I hope people respond well to "the Lowlifes" because we have a bunch of storylines we’d like to explore featuring these characters.

HANK:'s a question with an answer I know I'll understand. Whats the basic story?

SIMON: Lowlifes centers on Larry Hayes, a San Francisco Police Detective. He's lost his family to divorce and he's clinging to his career by a thread. All this stems from a painkiller addiction he can’t kick that he picked up from an on-the-job injury. He thinks his life has already hit rock bottom, but there's another level for Hayes to fall as he finds out when he wakes up in an alley after a bad trip with no memory of the last four hours.

He thinks this is the wakeup call he needs to turn his life around, his problems intensify when he receives a call from a homicide inspector. Hayes' informant, a homeless man named Noble Jon, lies dead two blocks away, beaten and stabbed. The eerie pang of guilt seeps into Hayes. During his lost four hours, he's been in a fight. His knuckles are bruised and there's blood under his fingernails.

Is he Jon's killer? The mounting evidence says so. To add insult to injury, his wife has employed a PI to dig up dirt on him to ensure she gets sole custody of their daughter. Hayes mounts an off-the-books investigation and disappears amongst the city’s homeless community to stay one step ahead of a murder charge.

HANK: SO. A blog, a book and a movie. Amazing. And there's also an interactive Game! Click HERE to play....and remember. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

True Inept Crime Tuesday

Jan: When we write mysteries, we spend a lot of time making sure our protagonist has a "worthy" opponent. We try to invent clever bad guys with ingenious moves that keep our protagonist and our readers scratching their heads until the very end of the book.

The Sopranos television series did a great job of pointing out that hey, maybe people drift into criminal behavior because they don't have the smarts and the attention span to succeed at real jobs. But even those characters, who were uneducated and full of funny malapropisms, were still pretty crafty and street smart.

But in real life, many bad guys are flat out stupid. For example:
In Florida, Kyle Coker, 21-years old, wanted to impress his girlfriend by giving her a puppy so he took her Puppies Galore & More in Jacksonville. They hung out so long checking out dogs and looking so suspicious, that employees took notice.

When Coker tried to walk out of the store with a 9-week-old Shih Malt under his jacket, the store owner's daughter followed him outside and confronted him. He tried to deny taking the dog, but the cute little Shih Malt was peeking out of his jacket. The daughter's owner was able to grab the puppy back.

Coker ran away, but apparently forgot he left his girlfriend in the store. Employees were able to use her cell phone to call him and demand he come back to the store where he was arrested. He was charged with grand theft.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a 19-year old tried to rob an elderly man with a toy gun. Not only did he fail to intimidate the old man, when a neighbor saw what was happening and started screaming, the would-be robber ran away. He was caught by police, and tried in court, where he got a fifteen-year sentence for fake armed robbery. He was lucky, real armed robbery in Alabama carries a twenty year mandatory sentence.

Most real life criminals just aren't fit enough for our novels, but I'm wondering, do they have their literary uses? Could they be material for short stories?

Monday, January 17, 2011

What do you mean that's not my sign?

JAN: Have you heard the latest? They've completely revised the astrological chart.

Apparently since the Babylonians plotted zodiac signs according to birthdate and which the constellation the sun was "in," our planet's alignment has altered. Over the years, the moon's gravitational pull has caused the Earth to wobble on its axis. This created about one month deviation in the stars' alignment. (this reported in StarTribune.Com)

In other words, when astrologers used to say the "sun" was "in" Pisces or Aries, they often were "off" by a couple of weeks. This could be just one reason why NOTHING they said was going to happen in my life actually happened.

But rest easy, corrections are being made. Dates have been changed, a new constellation has been employed, and a 13th sign of the zodiac created: Ophiuchus, or Serpentarious, the serpent holder, is now wedged in between the old Scorpio and Sagittarious signs.

My daughter, who alerted me to this important news development, was excited because she's no longer a Sagittarius but a Ophiuchus. She's happy about this because the new definition of traits (which if you reread carefully could be applied to anyone) predicts a career as doctor of medicine, and she just happens to be applying to medical school.

But I found myself really disturbed. I am no longer an Aries but a Pisces. What? I've spent my entire life trying to be headstrong and strident, and now I'm supposed to be wishy washy?

Sure its balderdash, but it's balderdash that I took pretty seriously when I was say, 13 or 14 and trying to figure out who I was. I was ruled by MARS that's who I was, a bullheaded ram not a freaking ideological FISH.

Plus the book my girlfriend had on the Zodiac, which became our eighth grade bible, was written by an author unabashedly biased in favor of fire signs. So of course, I liked being a "fire" sign, which helped explain why I wasn't such a great swimmer and helped to justify all my swearing at my brothers.

But even as a grownup, I took an odd satisfaction in the fact that both my children were fire signs (Leo and Sagitarious) as if that were critical to our relationship. Now that my daughterï has been redefined as a Ophiuchus, that's shot to hell.

So here's the link to check out your own birthdate and new Zodiac sign. Does s this shake anyone else's self image? Or if you can you adapt?

HALLIE: ACK! I've always been a happy swimmy Pisces, secure in the knowledge that I shared that sign with Elizabeth Taylor. Now it turns out I'm Aquarius? How can this be? I mean, that's patently absurd. Can you say: Nonsense!

JAN: Cheer up, Hallie, maybe Elizabeth Taylor has be reassigned, too.

ROBERTA: Oh no you don't...this is totally unacceptable! I've been a Capricorn all my life--stable, ambitious, dogged, a lover of the color brown--no way I can adjust to a new sign now! Some of my friendships are entirely based on sharing the Capricorn sign--just think what might happen if we all had to slide over to Sagitarious...

RHYS: Interesting. I've never felt myself to be a true Libra. That love of balance and seeing both sides.. you should have observed me during the healthcare debate. No Libra in evidence there. But I'm certainly not, pardon the expression, a Virgo. My daughter is one and is all sweetness and light and flowing garments. Maybe I could have drifted into Scorpio--yes, I do have a sting in my tail, I suspect.And my best friend, who can read my mind, is one. Ah, so maybe there's some truth after all. But I don't want my husband to stop being a Sagitarius and become an Ophi-whatsit. No way!

JAN: If I could get the flowing garments, I might consider switching to Virgo.

ROSEMARY: I don't know why I care...but I do. I am not Ophiuchus - which sounds like a skin disease - interpreter of dreams, vivid premonitions, tax assessor, snake charmer, highest fame and legend coming after death and worst of all -
wearer of plaid.

I am Sagittarius - straight shooter, strong thighs. OTOH I don't mind the part about attracting good luck and fruitful blessings, a seeker of peace and harmony, intuitive.

HANK: Oh, please, certainly, I'm probably a perfect Libra. I'm a reporter, right? Fair, balanced, searching for justice and truth, flexible, tolerant, mediator, peacemaker, able to see both sides of anything . You know, to the nth degree, to the degree of having to discuss everything up one side and down the other. And being able to see eerything as a possibility. It's a good thing, pretty much, well, most of the time. I've alwys been comfortable as really, the semi-predictably indecisively decisive Libra. (You know, pretty much. But I could see how it might happen another way...) But now they wanna make me a VIRGO? A perfectionist, prissy, critical Virgo? Well, okay, it could happen. But isn't that a perfect Libra response??

JAN: It is a perfect Libra response, Hank. Which makes it unanimous. We reject this new astrological chart on very practical, logical grounds. I predict an international ground swell of protest. A new quasi-political/or is it philosophical movement. Stick-in-the-Original-Signs Unite! Anyone else want to join us?

Please come back tomorrow, when I talk about robberies gone bad, and Wednesday, when Hank interviews Simon Wood.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writers' Challenge 2011

JAN: Okay, you've had your holidays, your stuffed turkey, eggnog and New Year's champagne. Now it's time to get back in shape -- writing wise.

Maybe the rest of you are adults who can discipline yourselves, but not me, I'm a teenager at heart and NEED peer pressure. So here it is: a new SIX-WEEK WRITERS' CHALLENGE. In some ways, just like the Writers' Challenge that was so popular last summer. in other ways changed.

Here's how it's the same: There will be prizes.

Here's how it's different: This time we're awarding three signed ARCS -- that's right, hot off the presses ARCS of soon to be bestselling mysteries from Julia Spencer Fleming, (One Was a Soldier), Hallie Ephron (Come and Find Me ) and Rhys Bowen (Bless The Bride). As if that weren't enough, we also have a signed, out-of-print hardcopy of Deborah Crombie's Now May You Weep, and a copy of Drive Time, the last in Hank Phillippi Ryan's award-winning Charlie McNally series.

Here's what else is the same:
Because the seductive nature of the Internet must be repelled at all costs, and because the hardest part of writing is getting started, you MUST put off opening your email or checking whatever else you habitually, maybe even neurotically, check before writing. It doesn't matter if you write in the morning, or late afternoon or evening when you get back from work. You have to start writing BEFORE you go online.

Here's what else is different.
In the last challenge, you had to write a page a day before checking the Internet. In this challenge, you have to stay at your computer, focused and working, for a solid 45 minutes before you check the Internet.

What happened to the page quota? Last time, there were a lot of people who weren't working on first drafts. They were revising. Or writing synopsis. Or plotting out character growth. It was hard for them to get excited by one page.

Just like last time, the point is not to limit yourself to one page or 45 minutes. The point is to use that 45 minutes to trick yourself into getting started. We're happy if you're one of those thousand word-a-day people (HANK), but we're also thrilled if you are making those time consuming mental break-throughs, or pushing through the torture of a synopsis or diligently rewriting chapters.

Here's something else that's different. I'm taking pity on you. I'm giving you ONE DAY off a week. Saturday, Sunday, maybe a Wednesday snow day. Take it, guilt free. You're allowed.

Participants must sign up on the comments page anytime this week. But besides your first name, please give us an identifying last name initial or a nickname, especially if you have a popular name, say like Laura or Jennifer or especially KATE. When we count comments and award prizes we need to know which uniquely individual Laura, Jennifer or Kate you are.

You must join me on Sundays to check in on progress and comment at least three out of the six Sunday blogs. From that pool, three names will be drawn at random, and prizes assigned. There will also be a prize for most inspirational, and most-honest.

Come on everybody, be courageous. Take the plunge. Sign up. The only thing you have to lose is wasted time.

(You can also follow us during the week on Twitter, search for: #JRWRITEFIRST.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Can You Solve This Mystery?

HANK: OK, Reds, here's a mystery for you to solve. Right here, right now. Courtesy of Eric and Natalie Yoder. (Digression: Is this father- daughter team cute, or what?)

Read the mystery story, figure it out if you can! And then you'll see what today's post is all about.

Stars in Their Eyes

Mr. Sakura was known for giving a lot of homework, and a lot of it was very tough. He also
was known for having a sense of humor.

His assignment to the class was this: “Over the next week, at a time of your choosing,
identify the star that looks the largest in the sky.”

The day they turned in their answers, a group of friends gathered outside after school and
talked about what they did.

“I used binoculars, but even then, no one star seemed bigger than any of the others,”
Xavier said. “So I just picked the North Star. I don’t know if it’s the biggest, but at least it’s
easy to find.”

“I did some research on the Internet and found that Vega is a really bright star,” Paul said.
“I managed to find it one night. But I couldn’t tell if it’s the biggest star in the sky or not.”

Bradley said, “I used a telescope I got as a little kid and looked at the constellation
Orion—you know, the one that is supposed to look like a hunter wearing a belt. I picked one
of the belt stars, Mintaka. I tried to measure it against the other ones. It looked a little bigger,
but I don’t really know.”

“That’s what you guys get for not looking closely enough,” Nicholas said. “How could you
miss it?”


HANK: So? Did you get the answer? Eric Yoder and his daughter Natalie think the mysteries of science and the mysteries of mystery can be linked together in a terrific and valuable way--and not only for kids! So. Whose idea was One Minute Mysteries, 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science? (They also did math.) And why?

ERIC: It was my idea originally, but the idea didn't start as a book. When Natalie was in about 5th or 6th grade, I started writing some short mysteries just for fun. Mostly they were based on what she was learning in school at the time, specifically science class. I was trying to find a way to reinforce what she was learning in school and show that school material does have actual use in the real world.

HANK: How well I remember yowling, just tell me one reason I'm gonna need this when I grow up! (Trigonometry, specifically, I just couldn't see the value, until someone told me engineers use it to figure out how many parking spaces can fit in a parking lot. THAT made sense.) Do you remember any of those, Eric? Do you, Natalie?

ERIC: In both books, the goal was to make stories that could be solved by applying school subject matter in a creative way. One of the first ones I wrote was what ended up as a story in the science book called Shadow of a Doubt, which is about a girl who loses her earring and the solution depends on realizing that over the course of a couple of hours, a shadow will move. So that was taking a fairly simple scientific principle and working backward from it to create a mystery about it--why isn't it where she thinks it is?

When we did the math book, it was a bit more challenging to make those true mysteries rather than elaborate numbers problems. But the process was pretty much the same. For example, we started with an idea of doing one based on a light year being a measure of distance, not time, and ended up with a story that has a red herring, a simple math mistake that can distract the reader from the underlying solution.

NATALIE: Another thing we did was to make sure the stories were set in places kids normally are. So, a lot of them happen around school, in the backyard, at camp, at sports games and places like that. That helps them think that this could be happening to them. We didn't set many in class, because we didn't want this to be just like another school book.

HANK: So the point is: making the solution something that has to do with what they learned in school? Why did you think that was important? And tell us another one!

ERIC: I hate to use the term "make learning fun" but that's basically the idea. Looked at the other way, it was a way to present mystery stories that were solvable using information that they have been exposed to.

Another of the early ones from the science book, which is structured more as a classic one of these three people did it story, depends on knowing that a bat is a mammal, not a bird. So, you start with that idea and work backward from there. Pretty much naturally, that one ended up being set in a zoo, and it actually became the first story in the science book.

NATALIE: One of the first simple ideas I had was from a ski trip. This idea came when an activity in ski school involved a treasure hunt to find something hidden. When our ski class stopped there, the box was gone, which gave me the idea for a story. One possible explanation was that an animal got to it first but the reasoning behind the story is that bears would be hibernating. Another story idea I got on that trip involved background knowledge of hot springs, that there would be no chlorine in the water.

HANK: Was Natalie already a mystery fan?

ERIC: We used to read Nancy Drew, the Wishbone mysteries, the American Girl mysteries and others together when she was younger. So I would write one here and there just for fun when I had the inspiration. Eventually, she started writing some on her own to try to stump me.

HANK: Oh, Natalie, do you remember any of those?

NATALIE: Like any child, my dad used to read stories to me which always came as more of an interest to me than stories like a fairy tale because there was always a puzzle. Until I got old enough to read them myself my dad and I would try to work together to solve the mystery.

HANK: And then what?

ERIC: It was really just sporadic for a long time, but after we had maybe 15 or 20 of them, it occurred to me that this could be the basis for a book.

HANK: Tell us more about that.

ERIC: There was a personal connection that helped. The mother of one of the girls on Natalie's gymnastics team is the publisher of a company that sells books into the family and academic science markets. So I asked her if she might be interested. She looked them over and was excited but said she wanted only stories on science, so we had to discard a number of them we had done on other subjects. And of course, the natural number for a collection of one-minute mysteries is 60, so we had to get more disciplined about writing them. That meant coming up with a lot of MacGuffins.

NATALIE: After we had the first 20 or so, the stories started coming easier. There are a lot of things in daily life that could be perceived as a puzzle if you look at them that way. Each of us wrote some on our own but sometimes one of us would have a basic story or puzzle and the other would fill in the rest.

HANK: Writing these books must change the way you look at the world!

ERIC: When you're in the course of writing one, you do look at everyday events and think about how could that be a mystery. Did something surprising happen, and why, or was there a change in something that has to be explained. Natalie often will bring ideas home from school, based on something she's learning at the time. We've been building a file of them, which we'll need for the second science mysteries book we're starting on soon.

NATALIE: After writing these books, I have realized that one or two people can help influence and teach others directly. By being on the radio and in participating in book signings, you realize that the world is actually a much bigger place, and that your work can affect many people.

HANK: How do you two work together?

NATALIE: Working as a team definitely makes this process easier and more fun. Most of the time, one of us will either come up with a puzzle, or a story line, and the other one of us will piece the rest of the story together. Sometimes, if we write a story independently, we will go over it together to add a twist, or just to make basic edits.

ERIC: For some of them, we just sit at the computer and work until we have a few stories for the day, but others are more strokes of inspiration and we would write them wherever we were when the idea struck. I have a whole folder of stories that were written on scraps of paper in the car or in the living room or on vacation, some of them actually pretty complete. Natalie did some just on her own and I also did some on my own, especially early on when we were just doing them for fun. But we worked together to polish almost all of them. It really helps to have a second person suggesting what a character might say or do in a situation, and what needs to happen in the story. Short as they are, they do have characterization and plot.

HANK: How have kids (and parents and teachers) responded to these?

ERIC: We've gotten really positive reactions from parents, teachers, home schoolers, general mystery readers and lots of kids. If you look at the comments about the books on Amazon and in the reviews we got, they all like the concept and the stories. Teachers have said they use stories as homework assignments or warmup problems, or just read them in class to start discussions. And I know a lot of parents use them as bedtime stories or stories for in the car.

NATALIE: It's so great to hear from someone who has read the stories who has positive feedback. I had a teacher at my school who I didn't really know call me into his office and show me an article about me from his hometown newspaper, and lots people have said they have seen the book in stores or heard the radio shows. Some of the girls I do gymnastics with, or the children I babysit for have often told me that they enjoy the stories, and that makes writing worth it.

HANK: Love it! So, gang, did you get the answer to Mr. Sakura's assignment?


Eric Yoder ( is a successful business writer at The Washington Post who loves sharing his passion for mysteries and education. Natalie Yoder ( is a high school senior whose favorite subjects are psychology, science, and math. She began writing books with her father while she was still in middle school. Both authors have been featured several times on NPR’s “Science Friday with Ira Flatow.” In addition, they have received multiple awards and recognition from national and international parenting, education, and science organizations.