Friday, June 16, 2017

R. Franklin James on growing tomatoes & the art of writing

HALLIE EPHRON: Rae James has the kind of background you might make up for your female protagonist in a crime novel. She wrote legislation and public policy before being appointed a Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles by Richard Riordan.  Her Hollis Morgan series written as R. Franklin James--#5, The Bell Tolls is just out this month--are informed and inspired by all she learned about law and criminal behavior.

And then, immersed in writing, she started to garden. Here today she shares her thoughts on gardening and the art of writing.


R. FRANKLIN JAMES: In an effort not to become a one-dimensional author I took up gardening. After signing my second publishing contract to produce the Hollis Morgan Mystery Series over the next five years, I soon realized that without some meaningful distraction my brain would be sucked into the vortex of fictional characters appearing as real life.

I decided on gardening for two reasons: it wasn’t aerobic and I didn’t have to leave home.


Doing a limited amount of research I discovered that growing tomatoes takes a minimum amount of effort, money and time. Tomatoes also have numerous hybrid varieties that are pest resistant, produce perfect color and can last for weeks. Most importantly, with only a superficial look at the garden it appeared as if you were really productive. Additionally, tomatoes do not need a lot of space and time for caretaking.

It reminded me of writing. I know the association may initially appear obscure, but bear with me just a moment.

Writing is the same. The seed of an idea, a computer or even pen and paper, are all you need to write. Writing has minimum space requirements and there are numerous fictional hybrids or genres to choose from. Over the years technology has entered our lives and made editing and revisions a breeze and the keyboard has replaced the pen.

Writing is now pest resistant.
Those pesky typos, misspellings, double spaces after a period can be eliminated with the stroke of a function key. Even name changes, or reducing the number of “nodded’s” can be updated with “Find/Replace”. And the pièce de résistance is the “Track Changes” key that maintains the corrections path, even as our brains struggle to remember the location of an errant sentence.

Unlike tomatoes, the quality of writing comes from me.

Storytelling and the ability to entertain readers, compels us to keep our butts in the chair and produce what we hope are memorable passages of thought reduced to words. And it is the combination of those words that we hope will touch others the same way they have touched us.  I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Thomas Mann: a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

A writer’s life is fraught with distractions, although sometimes we can’t find enough of them. It’ s said that Michelangelo looked at a block of marble and released the David inside, so do writers face tens of thousands of words and look to release a page-turning novel.

For an author, writing is a passion and like gardening it must be carefully tended to and hopefully loved.


HALLIE: And writers need to be watered... she said, sipping her wine. But not while they're writing.


Rae, I love this connection between gardening and writing.

I'm not a great gardener but I do like to weed
. My garden is full of volunteers and I see it as my job to pull the unwelcome ones, rearrange and nurture the rest. Like writing and ideas, yes?


Which brings us to today's question: What kind of gardener are you? Tomatoes or weed pulling or other? 


R. Franklin James is the author of the Hollis Morgan Mystery Series. Her first novel, The Fallen Angels Book Club was released by Camel Press in 2013. The fifth book in the series: The Bell Tolls will be released in June 2017. She is a Bouchercon board member, a member of Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Her website is: www.rfranklinjames.com. You can also reach her on Twitter at: #rfjbooks

56 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Rae.
    As for the gardening, I love my flowers, but I’m not always as quick as I should be to yank out those pesky weeds. On the other hand, they don’t stand a chance if they show up in my herb garden . . . .

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    1. Fresh herbs! I grow sage and mint, and try to keep the mint from taking over the sage. Basil in a pot. I'm always looking for chives to plant, but they never seem to turn up among potted plants for sale.

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    2. I'll divide my chives and bring you some next Monday, Hallie.

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    3. If you wander into my garden, I will share parsley, sage, rosemary and chives.

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    4. And a ton of perennial thyme. But only if you have the time.

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    5. My chives have multiplied for about 18 years now. We have thyme, summer savory, rosemary, chocolate mint (fabulous in fruit salad), lemon balm, and lavender.

      What kind of herbs do you grow, Joan?

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  2. Hello Rae, congratulations on your newest Hollis book. I love this character and series. Since I live in an apartment, I am limited to balcony gardening with many planters for my herbs and salad greens, and I also grew cherry tomatoes last year. No problem with weeds but I have a rogue squirrel that has been repeatedly digging up (not eating) my arugula plants. If looks could kill...he would be a gonner. Hope to see you at Bouchercon this year...Toronto is my hometown.

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    1. Aaaagggh! Here, a rabbit just decimated my prize hybrid hosta. I hope it comes back.

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    2. Really Hallie? I thought killing hostas was right up there with eradicating bind weed, not happening in this lifetime.

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    3. Grace, thank you for the kind words. Yes, I'll be in Toronto. Make sure you come up and say hello, if I don't see you first.

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  3. Welcome! I agree with all those parallels. I'm definitely a gardener, and it's a great diversion after a day in the chair making stuff up to go out back and tie up my tomatoes, pull a few weeds among the garlic, and curse the woodchucks who just mowed down my beautiful heads of lettuce.

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    1. And Edith you not only write like a gardener, gardening is woven into the content of your local foods series, yes?

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    2. Yes - the whole series is set on a small organic farm like the one I used to have.

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    3. woodchucks are a scourge! so rude and piggish!

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  4. I plant perennials densely, in a not-always-successful attempt to reduce or even eliminate the need to weed. Good planning? Forethought? Or just lazy? Hmmmmm. Regardless, it's working for me and it gives me a lovely bed to watch develop over the spring and summer, as I sit at the dining room tea, sipping tea and watching life through the window. Rae/R. Franklin: You are new to me and I'm going to find you for a good read! And thanks for that terrific quote by Thomas Mann; it's new to me, too.

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    1. I'm your kind of gardener, Amanda - dense plantings disguising the weeds. I think that's the essence of over-writing.

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    2. No wonder writing is hard for us spare style authors! Not enough words to cover the bad ideas:)

      Rae, tell us more about the new book!

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    3. Hollis Morgan is a protagonist who is trying to gain back her footing after coming off of parole for a crime her ex-husband committed. She seeks a judicial pardon so she can return to law school and take the bar. Hollis' parole officer recommends that she join the Fallen Angels Book Club, whose members must not only love books, but be white collar ex-felons. This dream is about to be thwarted when a member is killed like one of their book selection plots and she's a murder suspect. She will not be denied again.

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  5. Love this! And I must say, I am in love with track changes, Rae , for that very reason. It can track my changes, so I leave them there to see where I have been.
    And our garden there is a battle royale in the spring, between the people and the squirrels… The battle over the tulips. Which we fight with red pepper.
    Now there is a battle between the people and the rabbits over the hosta. The rabbits are just so darn cute, though, what are a few leaves?

    And back to the analogy… In writing, sometimes, the seed of an idea grows into something we didn't expect! And I love that part too

    Yes! Tell us more about the book! Waving to you all from the Toronto airport

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    1. we haven't had a ravenous rabbit until this year. :-p

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    2. Tomatoes keep me productive, and writing keeps me going. Hollis Morgan is a member of the Fallen Angels Book Club, a group of white-collar ex-felons who love to read. Characters all, they face another round of social rejection when one of the members is killed like a plot from their monthly book selection.

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  6. The tulips I planted 17 years ago have naturalized all over the neighborhood, thanks to the squirrels. So have the forget-me-nots. I see my garden offspring on every walk.

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    1. Volunteers! Love them. I've got crocuses all over my yard, and scilla and wood hyacinths that have migrates or been carried. Sadly also a ton of weeds that believe me, I did not plant.

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    2. I love tulips and volunteer anything. It's like Christmas in the Spring. Weeds?? It's part of the package.

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  7. Congratulations on your latest book, and your new contract, Rae! I'll have to look for your books.

    When I bought my house, three years ago, it was an intact relic of 1960, including the foundation plantings of holly, boxwood, and red tipped photinia. Everything was supposed to be trimmed square, which made the whole place look like a bunker. One by one, the ranks of square bushes are going away, and I'm replacing them with native perennials, flowering shrubs, and plants that don't require a lot of care, pruning, or even water. And roses. Lots of roses. Two years in on the garden, and it's better than it was, but not anything like what I want it to be, and that's the joy of it. The project makes me do lots of research, visualize how different plants will look in different spaces and, best of all, get out there and putter. I plant and prune and deadhead, and sometimes just walk along and talk to my plants, encouraging them all to do their best. Weeding will have to come next, I know, but that may be an excuse to buy a new tool so, win! Some day I'll have a cottage garden to rival Deb's. (No, probably not, but I can dream.)

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    1. I love roses, but I kill them. Or maybe it's the weather. They're a bear to prune--I invariably end up getting stuck. But boy would I love to still have the peace rose that was growing in our backyard when we bought this house 40 years ago.

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    2. Gigi, if my garden is beautiful it his in large part thanks to our shared landscaper/gardener, the peerless Agapito. I could never keep all this stuff up by myself, even with the beds full of native perennials.

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    3. Thank you. I inherited a yard from a rose fanatic: Heritage, wild, hybrids, climbing, bushes -- you name it.

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    4. Oh, lucky, lucky you! Do you know all their names? Or do you just sit back and enjoy?

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  8. Happy bookday Rae. If there is anything I admire as much as writers, it is women in politics. I was working in South Central, visiting nurse, when Maxine Waters was elected to congress, and that was a day of celebration, what a pistol she is. So thank you for taking on two very difficult change-making jobs.

    As for our burgeoning garden, it is getting to be too much for us. So yesterday we hired a young man with a vision, a self-trained landscaper and jack of all trades. We know his work from what he has done for neighbors. I plan to sit back the rest of the summer and watch him produce!

    This is the year of the rose up here on the tundra, unfortunately because of the weather which seems perfect for both growing and eroding the entire beach on the south side of the Big Lake (Ontario.) The 4th of July will be interesting, no ring of bonfires on the beach, maybe no illegal fireworks provided by the Italian contingent of the family. Just hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad and baked beans, home made ice cream and cake, family and love and a libation or two, in case we get thirsty.

    Ann in Rochester, who got completely off the subject of gardening and writing but then is old and has a wandering mind.

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    1. A landscaper: HEAVEN! We do get the yard cleaned up and the bushes clipped a few times a year, but for the rest it's me. It's almost July and the mind does turn to hot dogs.

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    2. Maybe we should award Super David a trip to Mass?

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    3. He could pop by my house while he's out here! Please?

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    4. Thank you, I need to buy hot dogs. Have a great summer!

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  9. What a lovely analogy! I'm the "find something that needs the minimal amount of work and stick it in the ground" kind of gardener. LOL

    Mary/Liz

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  10. When it comes to gardening, I'm the person who appreciates others' efforts, especially my wife's.

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  11. Rae,

    Congratulations on your new book and welcome to JRW! Is Rae a family name? Usually I see Rae as a middle name.

    Gardening is a wonderful talent. I do not know how to garden YET, though I admire people who have the gardening talent.

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    1. Yes, it's Rae as a first name. My mother hates nicknames. I should tell you that I define gardening fairly narrowly--that is plants that are self-reliant and bring joy.

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    2. It's rare to see Rae as a first name. My grandmother was Rae, though that was her Anglicized name. On the 1920 census, her name was Rose.

      Love beautiful gardens. If you get a chance to visit the University of California at Berkeley, then check out the Botanical Gardens.

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  12. Edith,

    I wondered with your organic farming mystery series if you were a gardener in real life?

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    1. Organic gardener since college back in the prehistoric days, then a certified organic farmer for five years or so, now back to gardener status (but how fun it is to be in the farming world - virtually - without having to do all the backbreaking work!).

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  13. Love this analogy, Rae. Happy book pub day!

    If you think tomatoes are easy, you should try growing onions and potatoes. It's grand fun to poke a piece of potato into the ground and a few months later pull up (or dig up) pounds and pounds of taters. Onions are even easier, and nothing eats them except humans.

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    1. And garlic! We in the northeast get to plant it on a sunny day in October or November when there's no other food you get to plant unless you have a greenhouse. It comes up in April, and you harvest in July. It's like a free crop.

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  14. Hi Rae, and congrats on your book birthday! I love the gardening/writing analogy. I definitely plant a lot of stuff, then see what does well and what doesn't:-)

    I haven't grown tomatoes in years, but inspired by our Lucy's potted tomatoes in Florida, I planted two in a couple of old plastic pots. They have NOT done well. On the other hand, my new David Austin roses are fabulous. Maybe I'll just buy my tomatoes at the farmer's market...

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    1. Thank you. Gardening makes me feel normal.

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  15. I am not a gardener, nor could I be in our current living situation, which is a high rise. When we had a house, I gardened to the point that everything looked nice, and I enjoyed picking out plants, but I've never found it to be the calming, restorative activity so many people do!

    Rae, I love the Thomas Mann quote and the way you think about writing. I think many writers struggle with the need to make it perfect on the page the first time, but that's as ridiculous as thinking one's first attempt at gardening will be prize-winning. Thanks for this new perspective! Tell us more about the series!

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    1. Hi Ingrid, writing is my love and gardening is my balance.

      Hollis Morgan is a protagonist who is trying to gain back her footing after coming off of parole for a crime her ex-husband committed. She seeks a judicial pardon so she can return to law school and take the bar. Hollis' parole officer recommends that she join the Fallen Angels Book Club, whose members must not only love books, but be white collar ex-felons. This dream is about to be thwarted when a member is killed like one of their book selection plots and she's a murder suspect. She's built a thick wall around her feelings but through the series she discovers that she's not only has a keen sense of deduction but also a champion for those who have also misplaced their trust.

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  16. When I was young and in Boy Scouts, I had to do some gardening for a merit badge. Beyond that, I'm no kind of gardener. I don't eat vegetables so there's no need to plant those and I'm not a plant or flower guy so the closest I come to any kind of working in the yard situation is when I have to mow the lawn.

    But that wouldn't stop me from reading a mystery series based around gardening.

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  17. Rae,

    If you're looking for super easy crops to grow, try sugar snap peas (spring) and Bush green beans (summer). Just rake some bone meal into the soil, plant seeds and stand back and watch them grow.

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  18. You all are determined to make me feel guilty about not gardening. Hahaha! Like Ingrid, it just doesn't resonate with me on the calming, restorative scale. However, having said that, I just looked at my mother-in-law's tomato plants, and I think next year may be the year I grow tomatoes and maybe a little something else. And, I do love flowers and fresh flowers to bring inside, but I'm just not into growing them myself. I so enjoy the pictures of Debs' garden and pictures of fresh cut flowers that Hank posts from her garden.

    Rae, your Hollis Morgan series sounds wonderful, and with your background, I'm sure they are great reads. I will now have to go to Amazon to put them on my wish list.

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  19. I just have to add, having been on a panel with Rae, that she is a fabulous moderator! Great to read about Hollis, here, I love the Fallen Angels Book Club! Brilliant.

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