Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Heather Chavez--No Bad Deed

DEBORAH CROMBIE: There is nothing that gives us more pleasure here at JRW than introducing debut authors and we have a treat in store today! Just the premise of Heather Chavez's first novel, NO BAD DEED, gives me goosebumps, and I dare anyone to put it down after the first page.  And isn't the cover fabulous? Here's Heather to tell you how publication has changed her writing life, and that gave me goosebumps, too!

HEATHER CHAVEZ: I was so honored and excited to be invited to be here by the Jungle Red Writers. I love being able to “meet” new people, especially since I wrote my first book in such a bubble.

They say that writing is a solitary pursuit, but when I was drafting NO BAD DEED, I took that to the extreme. It was just me and my computer. I had a single friend who read the first draft (a thankless job since my first drafts are pretty rough) and an editor who looked at the first fifty or so pages.

But then I threw out most of that first draft and started again. Truly, it wasn’t a revision but a total rewrite. Two of the three POVs were ditched. I switched from third-person to first-person. The plot was overhauled. The first line remained but other than that, it was a whole new book—a book no one saw until I started querying several months later. After writing three and a half practice books, I wasn’t even sure this one was any good. When agents started responding, I was actually surprised. 

Imposter syndrome is real, right?

That was my experience writing the first book that sold. Book two, in contrast, has been a completely different experience. Since I have a two-book deal with William Morrow, I know people are going to read this one. No more writing alone in my office, indulging my “hobby.” With this one, there are expectations attached.

Fortunately, in addition to a very collaborative relationship with my agent and editor, there’s something else I have now that I didn’t have then: I’ve found my writing people. I’m part of an online Facebook group of other authors debuting this year. How cool (and unusual) is it to be able to connect with writers going through the exact same thing as I am?

While I’ve shared the occasional snippet of writing, it’s more about sharing the journey. In December, about fifteen of us met in real life in New York. Another group will be gathering soon in Los Angeles. Members also have attended each others’ author events, or introduced themselves at conferences.

But I’ve never personally met most of the members I now consider friends. These friends live in other parts of the United States, and all over the world. I regularly communicate with members in places as far from my California hometown as Chicago and New York, and even Canada and Germany. I’m actually as excited for their releases as I am for my own. Maybe even more so, because I don’t have to deal with the nerves part of it, too.

I’ve also become part of readers’ groups online and have grown more active on social media. As someone who has never attended a writers’ conference and who wrote my first book in such a bubble, it’s such an incredible feeling to know support (and celebration) is now only a click away. It’s made this process so much more enjoyable, and the challenges easier to overcome.

So what do you all think? Do you have good friends you’ve never met? In creative pursuits, do you go it alone, or do you rely on the feedback and support of others?

Driving home one night, veterinarian Cassie Larkin sees a man and woman fighting on the side of the road. When she steps in, the attacker warns her: “Let her die, and I’ll let you live.” Trained to heal, Cassie isn’t about to let the woman die. But while she’s helping the unconscious victim, the attacker steals her car. Now he has her name. Her address. And he knows about her children. The next night, Cassie’s husband disappears. Are these events connected? As she searches for answers, Cassie discovers that nothing is as random as it seems, and that she is willing to go to the most terrifying extremes to save her family. 

A graduate of UC Berkeley’s English literature program, Heather Chavez has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. She lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her husband and children. No Bad Deed is her first book. 

DEBS: Heather's story has reminded me what a great community we have, writers AND readers. Stop by and welcome Heather, and wish her happy pub day!!

Monday, February 17, 2020

Setting Reading Goals

DEBORAH CROMBIE: A blog I follow (Modern Mrs Darcy--highly recommended if you haven't discovered it!) recently suggested ways to get more reading into your life—all great ideas! But it wasn’t just more reading, it was ways to help you reach 100 books a year, or whatever your yearly reading goal might be. There were also a lot of tips for keeping track of your reading, from using Goodreads to Excel spreadsheets.

 All this made me realize that I have NEVER set a yearly reading goal! At least not since elementary school summer reading challengers! Since then, I have just...read. I am always reading. There is not a day when I don’t get in at least a few pages of at least one book--reading feels as necessary to me as breathing. But I’ve never been very good at keeping track of what I read. My few attempts at keeping a book journal have failed miserably. I have no idea how many books I read in a year. Out of curiosity, I added up what I’ve read halfway through February--nine books, if I count the one that is fifty pages from being finished (Bernadine Evaristo's GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, which I have loved!) and that is partly because I was reading through a series. That number will not, I fear, get me to 100 books a year!

I can see some advantages, however, to having a BOOK PLAN, an organized reading agenda. I imagine I would read more non-fiction (despite my good intentions, most of my non-fiction reading ends up being research material), more important books (those big literary novels I seldom get around to), perhaps more classics. 

But as authors, we have so much “required” reading, books by friends, books for blurbs, books by authors with whom we are sharing events (I have four on my nightstand for the upcoming Virginia Festival of Books at the end of March,) that it sounds daunting to set more fixed parameters. (I have discovered, however, that I read more when I read on my Kindle. As much as I love paper books, I read faster on the digital page, and I carry the Kindle with me literally everywhere.)

What about you, REDS? Do you set goals? Do you keep track of what you read, and if so, how?

HALLIE EPHRON: I’m up to the top with “required” reading, too. I just finished a book I might never have read but for the fact that I’m sharing an event with the author, Christopher Bollen, at Porter Square Books this Wednesday evening. The book is A BEAUTIFUL CRIME and it’s about a pair of grifters, set in Venice...starts out noir and ends up a love story. It blew me away with the writing and with the surprising twists and turns in the story. *Literary* thriller, writ large. 

I’m also reading an advance copy of Wendy Coris Staub’s riveting forthcoming thriller, THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER. Can’t wait to get back to it, in fact.

Whenever I do an event at a bookstore I ask what their customers are reading (and loving) and I try to pick up a copy of the book most enthused about. That’s how I ended up with THE NICKEL BOYS. My daughter saw it sitting in my office, waiting to be read, and nicked it… waiting for it to come back.

Reading goals? I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Maybe when I retire…

RHYS BOWEN: I have a TO BE READ pile on my night stand but that’s about as close as I come to a reading goal. My big hurdle, like Debs and Hallie, is required reading. A long string of books to blurb and then research materials for what I plan to write next. I do enjoy non fiction especially travel literature and biographies. Right now I am writing about Venice in the nineteen thirties so I’m working my way through Donna Leon to remind me of the feel of Venice. I find myself saying “ oh yes. I know that bar/ book shop. Very satisfying. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Goals? HA!  My goal is to be able to sit in a chair (or wherever) and read without any conscience pangs that I ought to be doing something else. But while on vacation last week (sigh) I managed to read three books I was asked to read--and whoa, what a joy! True fun to read THE SWAP by Robyn Harding and THE WIFE STALKER by Liv Constantine (both perfect beach books--someone traveling with me said at one point: Whoa, Hank, you haven’t budged in an hour!) and the debut WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG (trust me, you heard it here first)--as well as getting the fun of starting Michael Sears already-stellar-after-six-chapters TOWER OF BABEL. And bugging my editor for the new Rachel Howzell Hall. Oh, and Jennifer HIllier’s LIttle Secrets. WOW.

And yes, the nightstand tower is as close as I’m getting to a goal. Oh, after Mary HIggins Clark’s death, I realized I had never read WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN, which I admit, I devoured in one sitting.

SO. Goals. Not by number at least. I don’t keep track of what I read...I have too many lists already!

LUCY BURDETTE: I don’t have goals either, though like the rest of you I read every day. I have stacks instead. After working on the computer all day, I really want to read what I want to read to relax. I would hate for it to feel like another job, or something to feel guilty about. So I’d balk at having a list of required reading. I keep a rough list on Goodreads and Bookbub, but it’s by no means complete!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: In the past two weeks, I’ve done ZERO reading, which may be a world record. Even when I had newborns, I used to keep books of short stories in the bathroom to get a five-minute fix. The reason for my drought? I am a full 15 days into the H1N1 virus, and it’s kicking me right when I tend to read - in the evening.

Thanks to having gotten the vaccine, I have half a day when I feel capable of doing things. I write, I walk the dog (if necessary), I perform a few feeble acts of huswifery. (A few. Seriously, don’t come over unless you really like dust bunnies.) But my fever starts to rise by 4pm, and I get more and more achy and tired. I’ve been heading up to bed by 8-9pm, but even the THOUGHT of reading is exhausting. A couple nights ago, I had Alexa play Maine Classical, and I was too tired to listen to music.

What was the question? I think you all know the answer. Even with the help of the magnificent Celia Wakefield, Professional Organizer, reading goals are a bridge too far for me.

DEBS: Oh, no, Julia!!! Please take care of yourself! We are all sending you healing thoughts--and if we were closer we'd tackle your dust bunnies!

READERS, we're batting for zero here. Help us out! Who sets reading goals, and how? And please share any tips for getting in more words in a day!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Lucy's Experiment on Writing What She's Not

Photo by Steve Callahan

LUCY BURDETTE: Since we had the discussion two weeks ago about whether an author should write from a point of view character that she doesn't know and understand personally, I've been puzzling over that question. I began to noodle around with a short story idea following our African trip, and I decided you all might like to offer opinions and advice. 

It seemed to me that this story could be written from several different points of view. One might be the tour director, who I was imagining as a young-ish white woman. She would know the people on the trip and be able to translate their peculiarities to the local Namibian authorities. (And I could imagine being in her shoes fairly easily.) Another, I imagined might be Bigboy, a local black man who is hired to help with the boat safari and fishing and sightseeing trips. As a native from the nearby village, he would have a very different perspective on the crime and the tourists, while also having experience with the ship and the wild setting. So that's the way I began to write the story. But I wondered if I could ever really understand his POV? Here's a snippet of the story draft and then I'd love to hear from you!

Murder on the Zambezi Queen by Lucy Burdette

It was said by village lore that there were a thousand ways to die along the river. But this time, death appeared to have come by human being, not by an annoyed hippopotamus, not by crocodile snatching the body and pulling it thrashing below the surface of the water to store for a later meal, not by puff adder or black mamba snakes, not by a charging Cape Buffalo.
The body floated in the hot tub, which technically was not hot at all, as the motor had quit earlier in the week and could not be restored. It had been determined by the captain in conversation with the authorities that the body should not be moved since the woman was so clearly dead and evidence could too easily be destroyed. All three of the retired physicians on the tour agreed that there was no sign of life. Much to the dismay of the dead woman’s fellow travelers, she bobbed face up, following the rhythm of the river as it was disturbed by the wake of arriving boats. Perhaps, thought Bigboy, the local tour liaison, the cooler temperature of the dysfunctional tub might preserve the evidence.
The ship’s captain called over the intercom for all passengers to come out of their cabins, take seats in the lounge, and refrain from talking. It was an hour before sunset, the cocktail hour for some, and nap time for others who’d taken advantage of two or even three of the small boat cruises up the river to see the wildlife. Or perhaps drunk too many glasses of excellent rose at lunch.
As they emerged from the lower decks with mussed hair and baggy safari garb in shades of beige and gray, they were escorted to the outside deck, the one on the far end from the body and the tub. Two Namibian police officers, who had raced up to the houseboat in a small motor boat, queried them about their relationship to the floating woman, and asked each in turn what they might have seen or noticed. Bigboy perched in a corner where he could both eavesdrop on the conversations around him and listen to the questions of the Namibian authorities.
The younger of the two officials glanced around the room as if he had never seen such luxury. And quite probably he hadn’t. The only local people who’d seen the interior of this ship were villagers who worked shifts on the boat, providing three meals per day and a river of wine and beer, and ministering to the cabins of the guests whenever they were out viewing wildlife. How was it fair, he wondered, that the people in the villages bordering the river shared one outhouse, while the American tourists had their personal toilets cleaned twice a day?
The ever-cheery tour director sat in for each interview, offering bottled water and cheerful attempts at reassurance. But Bigboy suspected that scratch beneath her surface, sheer panic bloomed. This death was a tour director‘s nightmare, the worst possible nightmare, worse than having to airlift someone out of the bush with a cardiac emergency. Worse even than receiving and then having to break the news of a dead parent or desperately sick child.
Eventually the tour director’s turn with the questioning came.
“Did you know this deceased?”
“We all knew her, we’ve been on this tour for almost two weeks.” She couldn’t prevent herself from a roll of the eyes. “She was not the kind of woman who remained in the background. This morning at breakfast we heard a round up of her hormone replacement therapy right down to the dosages that kept her husband happy and her skin young. Her husband sat there across the table with a dumb grin on his face.” She leaned forward to whisper. "More than once I wondered if there was something wrong with him." She mimicked a whirling motion with one finger and mouthed the word 'cuckoo'.
The Namibian police officers looked perplexed, confused.
She drew back and sat up straight. “What I mean to say is that we’ve been together for two weeks. And most of us had not met each other before this trip. And if you put a cross-section of the human race into a confined space, some of them are bound to turn up annoying. And even if the group is gelling, about ten days into the trip, the people start to get, well”… she paused, “as we say in the business, scratchy. And then once your mind identifies someone as annoying, those same people grow louder and more annoying, or so it seems. And then the daydreams begin.” Her words trailed off, as if realizing she was saying way too much.

Thoughts Reds? Is one or the other possible POV more interesting to you? Would writing from Bigboy's perspective feel like too much of a reach for a caucasian woman writer? 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

When the story becomes your own by Amanda Le Rougetel

LUCY BURDETTE: Do you ever wonder how we find and curate the posts that appear miraculously every day on this blog? Sometimes people ask us to appear, other times we just make stuff up, and sometimes we invite guests who we think will be interesting. A while back when one of our friends, Amanda, posted about a writing group she led with a pal, I asked her to write a post. I hope you find it as interesting as I did, and I know you'll welcome Amanda!

AMANDA LE ROUGETEL: Once a month, I pack an overnight bag and head across town to my friend Deborah’s for a writing retreat. We do more than ‘just’ write — we talk, we eat, and we critique each other’s work. We usually stay up too late, but the morning is rich with good coffee, and more time for writing and talking.

We are both in times of transition in our lives: Deborah is heading towards the third anniversary of her husband’s death and reinventing herself as a lone woman after a loving marriage of 40+ years. I am moving towards retirement sometime in the next five years and wanting to be a capital W writer by the time I get there. For me, this means actually writing (rather than just talking about writing!) and having people read that writing. Whether it’s on a published page or online doesn’t matter to me, but I want my writing to find readers.

Deborah and I trust each other, so our critiques pull no punches: We question word choice, push for greater clarity of thought, and suggest that beginnings, mid-points or endings might be stronger by considering X or Y. Deborah has been focusing on creative memoir, while I’ve been writing creative non-fiction on my blog Five Years a Writer.

After several months of coffee and conversation, we realized that our process was producing not only better writing but also increased clarity about our evolving identities. It seemed that, in paying attention to our writing, we were becoming sharper critics of our lives and more confident agents of personal change.

One day, we decided that we wanted to share our practice with a public audience. So we developed a 4-part workshop titled Writing as a Tool for Transformation, which we offered last fall through the community classroom at our local independent bookstore.

By happenstance, the sixteen participants were all women. By design, they were each facing a self-identified transition of some kind: widowhood, retirement, ending of a relationship, the struggle for identity within motherhood, to name a few. Each was ready to use writing as a way to gain clarity for themselves. In each session, the participants wrote to our prompts, then re-wrote, shifting the form, perspective, audience and, in the final class, even the medium — using images from magazines to encapsulate their new understanding of themselves relative to the transition they were working with.

And clarity came. One woman said she was able, for the first time, to articulate her feelings about the transition she was working with.

Don’t you think that that is exactly the power of words? Whether we write them or we read them, if we engage actively with the meaning they create for us, they open doorways through which our imagination can flow to shape new thoughts and understandings.

For me, active reading of fiction or non-fiction can spark insights into myself, because I live vicariously through the characters and story unfolding on the page, and I contemplate how I might acquit myself in similar circumstances. Would I be as fearless as V. I. Warshawski? As open-hearted as Clare Fergusson? As committed to family as Gemma James? I have never owned a horse, but as a young girl I learned not only about riding from the Jill stories, but also about how to be a self-reliant young person in a world run by adults. From the Sue Barton: Nurse stories I learned that meaningful work could transition beyond formal career to other contexts.

I’ve sorted out many a thorny issue in my life by writing it out. And I’ve come to untold better understandings of myself by engaging with the lives of characters invented by an author. Reading is a pleasure, and when that pleasure produces insight, then it’s not only rewarding but potentially life-changing.

What about you, dear Reds and JRW readers? Do you ever write your way to clarity and insight about a challenge in your life? Do characters in a book lead you to better understanding of yourself?

Amanda Le Rougetel is a lifelong reader and a non-fiction-writer-in-progress. She was introduced to the mystery genre through Mrs. Pollifax, Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski and is happy that the Reds writers have expanded her reach much more broadly into the field. That she finds herself posting to the Jungle Red Writers blog today as a guest is an enormous thrill and unexpected honor. She posts to her own blog Five Years a Writer less regularly than she would like, but is working to improve her writing routine. She earns her living as a college communication instructor in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Friday, February 14, 2020

My African Animal Valentine by Lucy Burdette

LUCY BURDETTE: Reading a good book is one great way of showing us another life, another setting, another point of view. For me, traveling to a strange world does a similar thing, although with the added intensity of being immersed in the scene here and now. I realize that I'm very fortunate to have this kind of opportunity and I try to use that knowledge in my life. We still donate money every year to the Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway, Australia, after meeting koalas and kangaroos and the endangered tiger quoll. And now, after two weeks in Africa, there are more indelible footprints on my soul...

my favorite elephant photo

The distressing news first: Marauding Europeans decimated the wildlife population of Africa in the 19th century, slaughtering elephants and other large game animals. Now game parks are slowly being established to allow the animals to roam in their natural habitat, and hopefully revive the threatened species. People are asking questions such as what is our responsibility to these animals as humans at the top of the food chain? And as animals are reintroduced to their native habitats, what really belongs there as opposed to what do tourists and hunters want to see? Should humans be banned altogether?

Poachers still threaten elephants for their ivory tusks, and especially rhinoceros for their horns, which have magical properties according to Chinese and Malaysian customers. I won't go into the sickening details, but the danger is so powerful that safari guests are asked not to post pictures of rhinos if they see them. Why? Because poachers use their digital information to locate and attack the animals--right where they're being preserved! So now we have new organizations to support, the World Wildlife Federation and the Community Conservation Fund of Africa.

And now for your animal Valentine...

Mala Mala--aren't they incredible? Who designed such a thing?

Hippos--don't get too close!

Cape buffalo--don't tangle with them either!
We absolutely loved watching the elephants play in the water and teach the babies to drink and hose themselves off. The back of the newest babies' ears was a magical pale pink

Not interested in us--he'd already eaten

Adolescents lounging--the ennui is catching

But there's no place like home with my own wildlife

Happy Valentine's Day to each of you red readers! We are so glad you are part of our family!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Choosing Another Word for Strong Women?

LUCY BURDETTE: Today we're delighted to host longtime Reds friend, Liz Milliron with her musings on strong female characters. Take it away Liz!

LIZ MILLIRON: Thank you, Lucy and all the Reds, for having me back. It’s always fun coming out from the back-bloggers and stepping “in front of the mic” as it were.

Today I have a confession to make and it’s a biggie.

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “strong woman” as a literary conceit.

Now, now, hear me out before you start boo-ing.

I absolutely want to write women who aren’t always being pushed around (unless that type of character is necessary for the plot). I don’t want to write a woman who is TSTL or always needs to be rescued (although needing a little help from her friends is not a bad thing). But the term “strong woman” always puts my back up because it seems to mean different things to different people.

photo by marvelousRoland
For some, a strong woman is someone like Black Widow from the Marvel movies or any other female action hero – one who is able to kick-butt and take names. But the ability to throw someone across the room is only one aspect of “strong” in my opinion.

For others, “strong” is a personality thing. They are independent, feisty, not afraid to say and do what they believe is right and sometimes verge into the always dreaded “unlikeable” label. Again, I think this definitely isn’t quite complete.

What I prefer is a term I came across a few years ago: agency.

A character with agency (male or female) is in charge of the story. She makes decisions, sometimes bad ones, and pushes the plot forward. She is active, not reactive. She isn’t like a video-game character, subservient to the whims of the player, but gets to choose for herself. That includes the ability to make bad choices.

It’s not that she doesn’t need anyone else, or never seeks advice, but she’s capable of taking that help from others and moving forward on her own. Or not taking it and moving alone, as the case may be.

This is the type of character I wanted to create when I came up with Betty Ahern, the protagonist in my Homefront Mysteries. The time is 1942. The world is at war and women were doing all sorts of things they didn’t historically do. Betty, only 18, works at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, NY, making the P-39 Airacobra. She’s the second child of an Irish Catholic family living in Buffalo’s First Ward. She loves movies, particularly detective pictures, and dreams of being a private eye herself.

Betty is straddling two worlds. The old one, represented by her mother, where women stayed at home, took care of the family, and confined themselves to the domestic front, and the new one, where women had to don pants go out and wield a rivet gun because as she says, “These planes aren’t gonna build themselves.”

World War II completed what World War I started. Women weren’t bystanders any longer. They loved their families, but they were going to make their decisions and do what their hearts told them. They might always have been strong, but now they had agency. They could make their choices and be in charge of their own stories.

It’s a process that’s still in progress. Women have seized their agency in so many ways since 1942 – and if you look at the 2016 elections, they are still finding new ways to make themselves the directors of their own stories.

I’m glad Betty is now part of that story.

*Side note: Betty is very loosely based on my paternal grandmother whose name was also Betty. She really did work at Bell Aircraft during WWII. She went on to get married, raise two boys, and spent 30 years working in a high school cafeteria. She could quell an argument with a single look. Talk about a strong woman.

Readers, tell me: Is there a woman in your life who you admire for her strength/agency? Or how you see women seizing agency today? We'll be giving away one copy of The Enemy We Don't Know to a commenter today... Ebook or paper copy (US only)

About the Book:

November, 1942. Betty Ahern is doing her part for the war, working at Bell Aircraft while her older brother and fiancée are fighting overseas, but she really wants to be a private detective like her movie idol Sam Spade. When sabotage comes to the plant, and a suspected co-worker hires her to clear her name, Betty sees it as her big chance.

As her questions take her into Buffalo’s German neighborhood, Kaisertown, Betty finds herself digging into a group that is trying to resurrect the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization. Have they elevated their activities past pamphlets and party-crashing?

When the investigation leads Betty and her two friends into a tangle of counterfeiting and murder, as well as the Bund, the trio must crack the case--before one or more of them ends up in the Buffalo River…wearing concrete overshoes.

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. Heaven Has No Rage, the second in the Laurel Highlands Mysteries, was released in August 2019. The first book of the Homefront Mysteries, The Enemy We Don’t Know, was released in February 2020. Soon to be an empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband, two children, and a retired-racer greyhound.