Thursday, March 31, 2011

Visiting with Kate Collins and Leann Sweeney

ROBERTA: Following up on our Monday theme of best advice ever, we're delighted to have two veteran mystery writers visiting us today. They both have new books launching but they also have a lot of wisdom about this crazy business! Welcome Leann Sweeney and Kate Collins!

Kate is the author of the flower shop mysteries, including her 
upcoming April 5 release, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DANDLELION. And Leann has written the yellow rose mysteries and the cats in trouble mysteries, including THE CAT, THE LADY, AND THE LIAR, also coming out on April 5. Let's begin at the beginning--how do you start a new book? What do you need to know or do before you begin writing?

KATE: Before I begin to outline a plot, I need to know who gets killed and why, and a reason that my sleuth must get involved. Then I figure out which four people in the life of the murder victim would have a reason to want the victim dead. I give them backstories, means, motive and opportunity. The only other thing I need is the dramatic ending. With all that figured out, the outline is much easier to write.

LEANN: I am an outliner. Once I start my narrative synopsis the story begins to flow and I know so much about the characters before I even begin the creative part. I also need a title. Strange, perhaps, but the title is very important to me. It keeps me focused on what this particular story is really about.

ROBERTA: Kate, since you have a long-running, popular series, with more books in the pipeline, I'm wondering how you keep from getting stale in this series? And tell the truth, are you ever sick to death of your own characters?

KATE: What keeps the series alive for me is the relationship that has been developing between my little florist/sleuth, Abby Knight, and the hot hunk who owns the bar down the street, Marco Salvare. Readers have loved seeing them go from that first spark-filled meeting to a growing attraction to a deep love. We're still moving forward with Abby and Marco, with lots of fun to come. So far, I haven't grown sick of my characters. I like watching them grow. What I do get tired of is having such tight deadlines, but I'm working on that issue. I want to love the process, and that can get tough on close deadlines.

ROBERTA: For Leann, I'm wondering what it was like to switch from the yellow rose series to the cats in trouble. And also I'm curious about whether you use your background in psychiatry in your writing, and if so, how?

LEANN: I thought the switch from Yellow Rose Mysteries to Cats in Trouble would be easy. So NOT easy. I had been writing the Yellow Rose Characters for more than a decade, long before I was published, so I knew them so well. Plus, those books are set in real life city that I am very familiar with. Everything in the Cats in Trouble Series had to come from my imagination. And making my two heroines very different was important. It was a whole new writing learning curve! As for the second part of your question, my psychology background is invaluable. I have met so many "characters" and have the college course work behind me that explains much about why people behave the way they do. Yup. Invaluable.

ROBERTA: Now for both of you, where do you think is the best bang for your promotional buck--and for your energy?

KATE: In general, the Internet affords the chance to reach the widest audience. I love to meet with readers at booksignings and at mystery conferences, as well, but since my time is limited, I can “talk” to many more readers through Facebook, Goodreads, and other similar sites.

LEANN: Since I have several chronic illnesses, I rely on things I can do from home. Facebook is my friend as far as connecting to readers, but I also network with other writers. And I have some very amazing writer friends who have gone the extra mile to help me get the word out about my books. I can never thank them enough. Bookmarks, buttons, cute business cards and now stickers with my cat character names are all part of the promotion.

ROBERTA: Thank you both for visiting--we know how busy this time is! Good luck with both of the books. You can read more about Kate and Leann at their websites.

And tomorrow (drum roll please!) we accept entries for our first crime fiction concept contest...see you in the comments...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I Love Reading and Writing Cozy Mysteries

By Linda O. Johnston

Just because!

Okay, I’ll get a little more specific. Because of the characters--plucky, smart, determined and successful in what they do. They live their own fun and fictional lives, taking care of what’s important to them... while solving murders.

And because of the themes. They’re what make cozies cozy!

I’m sure you know, as a Jungle Red Writer or follower, that each cozy series has its own theme or background. Some are similar, but all are at least somewhat unique--based on who the protagonists are, where they live and, mostly, what drives them.

Some of the most popular themes involve crafts or hobbies such as sewing or other needlework, crocheting, scrapbooking, quilting, rubber stamping, or collecting things such as miniatures.

Some involve careers, such as gardening, cooking, giving advice, or owning a particular kind of shop or restaurant. Others involve sports. Some have paranormal themes. Some are historical.

Still others--among my favorites, of course--involve animals.

Why themes? Because they intrigue readers who are already interested in those areas, lure them into picking up the books, then reading them--and in addition to being entertaining, the contents may teach readers about aspects they might not otherwise know. Themes also allow readers who share those interests to identify even more than they otherwise might with the protagonists. A theme additionally provides a background that can be carried through the entire series, sometimes allowing introduction of ongoing characters who act as the protagonist’s friends and sounding boards--or some even become victims or suspects in the murders that inevitably occur. These are, after all, mysteries.

I’ve had fun with the theme of my first mystery series, the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. Kendra lives where I do, in the Hollywood Hills. She’s a lawyer by background, as am I. She’s owned by a tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Lexie--a good description of my older dog. So, yes, Kendra is an alter ego of mine--but fortunately neither I nor my friends trip over dead bodies, and the only murders I solve are on the pages of my books.

This month, the first book in my new Pet Rescue Mystery series debuted with BEAGLEMANIA. The new series, featuring Lauren Vancouver, is a spinoff from the Kendra series, although both can be read independently. Yes, both involve animals, but from different perspectives. Different protagonists, too, even though both are written in first person.

Kendra’s tone is lighter than Lauren’s, which carries through with the difference in themes. A pet-sitter has a lot of responsibilities, sure--especially one who’s also a lawyer. That’s Kendra. But the weight on Lauren’s shoulders is often heavier. She rescues animals.

Lauren is the director of HotRescues, a no-kill animal shelter. She was introduced in HOWL DEADLY, the eighth Kendra mystery, and she also appeared in FELINE FATALE, the ninth.

Her own stories start with BEAGLEMANIA. Saving animals is her passion, and she’ll be involved with some difficult situations such as being there when puppies and their parents are saved from a puppy mill. The second Pet Rescue Mystery, THE MORE THE TERRIER, starts off with Lauren learning that her mentor in pet rescue has turned into an animal hoarder, and Lauren has to help deal with that, too. The stories of course contain murders that must be solved.

The theme behind the Pet Rescue Mysteries may be a bit edgier than many cozy mystery themes. I admit to wanting to call attention to the plight of too many animals who need new homes. But the mysteries are written to entertain lovers of cozy mysteries, not to hit them over the head with a message.

Because these stories are fiction, I’m able to make sure that HotRescues is adequately funded without a lot of stress on Lauren’s part. Plus, no matter what else happens, the animals will come out of it all just fine. I’ve even adopted a slogan: In the Pet Rescue Mysteries, “no-kill” means pets, not people!

I hadn’t initially considered that Lauren, like Kendra, would become an alter ego of mine, but as I got into researching the Pet Rescue Mysteries, I got into pet rescue more, too. I currently volunteer at a no-kill shelter as a dog adoption counselor. I’ve gone on training exercises with the Small Animal Rescue Team of Los Angeles Animal Services. And, I’m the L.A. Pet Rescue Examiner for

In case you can’t tell, I’m delighted with the pet rescue theme of my new Pet Rescue Mystery series!

By the way, I’m so obsessed with animals that I also write romances about them--the Alpha Force miniseries for Harlequin Nocturne, about a covert military unit of shapeshifters!

Please come visit me at and at on Wednesdays. Friend me on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you think of pet rescue--and BEAGLEMANIA!

JRW: thanks for stopping by Linda! We love the cover on Beaglemania...Linda will be checking in today to answer comments and questions. And don't forget to enter our crime concept contest, social media style, on Friday!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mary Buckham on Active Setting

ROBERTA: Every once in while we like to invite Mary Buckham to JRW--she's such a terrific writing teacher. I've taken several of her online writing classes and recommend them highly. Today she's here to talk about active setting--and she'll be stopping in to answer your questions so don't be shy!

MARY: What is Active Setting and how can it make a difference in our novels? Active Setting involves using narrative description of a place to do so much more than simply describe an environment. Active Setting means instead of describing a room, or town, or landscape we use that specific Setting to show characterization of the POV character or another story character, add sensory detail to the page, show emotion or create complications. Active Setting can also reveal back story, orient the reader as to the where, when and who of the story and it can impact story pacing.
It's amazing what Active Setting can do to enhance a story or, with the lack of it, flatline your novel.
Details must matter for Active Settings. Don't focus your reader on something that isn't pertinent to your story. Example --- you're showing the reader a room in a house. That room, and the details in that room, should show characterization, or conflict, or emotion, or foreshadow, or be there for a reason instead of simply to describe placement of objects in space.
One thing to remember is to let your POV characters interact with the setting, move through it, pick things up and brush past them, etc. Whenever there's an introduction of a setting that's different for the POV character, or for the reader, spend a few words of description to orient the reader. Make your Settings matter and your whole novel can benefit.
So what about you? What does Setting mean to you as you write? As you read? Feel free to comment and out of those who do comment one name will be drawn for a copy of BREAK INTO FICTION(tm): 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells or one-on-one help with a Query letter. For more information on Active Settings, Mary will be teaching a two-week intensive online class called ACTIVE SETTINGS: For All Genres in May at

Mary Buckham is an award-winning fiction writer, co-author with Dianna Love of BREAK INTO FICTION: (tm): 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells from Adams Media, co-founder of and a highly sought after instructor both on-line and at live workshops around the country. To find out more about Mary, her Manuscript, Synopsis and Query help, her Lecture Packets, Workshops and Writing projects visit

Monday, March 28, 2011

Best Advice Ever

ROBERTA: I was scrolling through recently sold books in publishers marketplace and came across this entry in the advice/relationships department: Katie Couric's THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Lessons From Extraordinary Lives, collecting essays, brief comments and poems from over 100 well-known people, inspired by her own commencement address at Case-Western Reserve, to Susan Mercandetti at Random House, for publication April 12, 2011.

Gosh we could have come up with that one! But since we didn't, I thought it would be fun to talk about the best or most memorable advice we Jungle Reds have ever gotten. I'll start with a couple of pearls from my mother, both of which came in my teenage years.

First: Never lie down on a blanket with a boy. Nuff said.

Second: One day you'll feel about a man the way you do about the cat. (My husband is still waiting for that one to materialize!)

So what about you Jungle Reds? Best advice ever? (Can be writing-related or just about life.)

DEB: From my dad--"Smile when you speak to someone on the phone. They can hear it." He was in sales his entire life, and this was one of his mantras. But it works for EVERYTHING and EVERYONE you deal with on the phone. My dad was a self-made man whose bible was Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. He lived by "treating others as you would like to be treated." Can't do much better than that.

JAN: Wow Deb. I'm going to use that one. That's terrific. I do a meditation which involves smiling and the effect is amazing. The best advice I got was also from my father and I repeat it all the time. He used to tell me, if you aren't actively trying to be a better person, you start sliding backwards. I think that's especially true as you age and get set in your ways.

Also, this is the best advice that I give my kids. Don't think about anything important after 9 p.m. at night. All thoughts get distorted as you get tired. And especially don't think of anything important as you are trying to go to sleep. Think about the plot of a movie or TV show -- someone ELSE's life, not yours.

HALLIE: Great advice, Jan - I confess, I churn late at night and it's pointless. I "go" places in my head--wander through the halls of my elementary school or through Robinson's department store near where I used to live. Before I know it I'm asleep.

My mother used to say things like Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. And Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. I rarely knew what she was going on about. But the one piece of advice I've taken to heart: Take notes.

ROSEMARY: Deb...I actually write down the word SMILE when I give a radio was right! I like all of these suggestions. I didn't take much advice from my father but I do remember him saying - as my mother dragged me to church and he stayed home - "just be a good person, you don't need all those rules." I try. Interesting that most of these words of wisdom came from our fathers. Maybe that's because our mothers just kept telling how how wonderful we were??

HANK: (RO, not mine....:-)) My mother told me "Thoughtful consideration of others is the sign of a true lady." We used to SNEER! Now I think, oh, I see what she means. Once I had lunch with my Dad, I was oh, about 22. And working at Rolling Stone, and CLUELESS. And I knew I was clueless. I said to dad--gosh, I am so nervous about work! I have no idea what I'm doing,I am just making it up as I go along every day.

And Dad (a foreign service officer) said, Oh, honey, that's what we're all doing. Everyone is making it up as they go along.

I was SHOCKED. And relived. And reassured. And I still think about that all the time.

And Roberta, yeah, we could have thought of it. Absolutamente. But we are not Katie Couric.

ROBERTA: Hank, to us you are definitely in Katie's league!

JULIA: Hank is like Katie Couric with better hair. Roberta, your mother's advice about "never lie on a blanket with a boy" reminds me of what my mom said before I left for college: "Aspirin is a sure-fire birth control method. You just place one between your knees and hold it there." That still makes me laugh, all these years later.

The piece of advice from my dad that still echoes in my head (and in my teenagers', since I regularly pass it on to them) is, "Assume everyone else on the road is an idiot." My dad is the best defensive driver EVER (even if we do tease him about always going five miles below the speed limit.)

For me, though, the best advice I ever got was in premarital couple's counseling, with Ross. The priest who was going to marry us was talking about how love is something you do, not just something you feel, and he said, "There will be times when you don't feel loving toward your spouse. There will be times when you don't even LIKE your spouse. But if you always act in a loving, considerate way toward each other, the feelings will follow your actions." (I add in passing this has also been very useful advice for the times when I feel like strangling my children.)

ROBERTA: Oh I love these suggestions! How about you, Jungle reds, best advice ever?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Crime Concept Contest, Social Media Style

ROBERTA: That title's a mouthful, I know. But I've reading a lot lately about social media and computer stuff figuring into crime. (And of course, Hallie's new book COME AND FIND ME features a computer hacker and Hank's book PRIME TIME started out with messages being sent through spam and Jan's book TEASER is about social media gone bad.)

In the Key West Citizen a couple of weeks ago, the crime report section featured a robber who was caught because he'd logged into his Myspace account while in the very home he was robbing! And the New York Times featured a story about criminals boasting about the crimes they'd committed on Facebook, or threatening future victims on their Facebook walls, or ranting on Twitter.

So we got the idea of sponsoring the first annual JRW Crime Concept Contest, social media style--and we have some terrific prizes! (The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel by Hallie Ephron, an ARC of One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming, signed copies of Teaser and Prime Time.)

Here are the rules.

1. Entries will be accepted on Friday April 1 only. (Yep, that's April Fool's Day, but we're not fooling.)

2. Entries should consist of one paragraph maximum and should be posted as a comment on the Friday blog.

3. Entries should describe the concept for a story or book you might write--the sky's the limit except social media, computers, or public electronic communication must play a major part.

4. Winners will be announced and posted on Saturday April 2, chosen at our whim of course!

AND while you're coming up with your concept this week, come back often--we have some terrific guests lined up: Mary Buckham talking about making your settings active on Tuesday, Linda O. Johnston about why read or write a cozy mystery on Wednesday, and following Monday's subject on good advice, writing veterans Leann Sweeney and Kate Collins will give their best tips for promotion and writing on Thursday. So come back soon!

Friday, March 25, 2011

End of week thoughts

It's been a strange week--an unsettling week with Libya, Japan, nuclear fallout and Elizabeth Taylor's death. It's funny how one can be affected by the death of someone one didn't know, but she was the last mega star. I'm currently attending Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, (with blogsister Rosemary) and a group of us discussed Elizabeth Taylor and the fact that we are all getting older..and most of us lamented that we hadn't lived enough. We still have seven husbands to catch up on!
Tonight there was a fabulous opening reception with a group of native American dancers from a nearby Pueblo. I wish I'd thought to bring my camera. Rosemary did so maybes she can share a picture with you. But the youngest member of the group was eighteen months old. She had the complete costume, absolutely adorable, and stood solemnly watching while the bigger kids and grown ups did a wonderfully energetic buffalo dance, full of intricate steps.It was a great way to have a blessing bestowed on our convention.
Tomorrow I have a panel with Laurie King, Rebecca Cantrell and a couple of guys on 20th century sleuths. It seems funny to refer to the 20th century as history now, doesn't it? And tomorrow night is the banquet. I'll have John take pix and try to post them.
Between panels there was a little time for shopping. We now own two lovely Indian baskets and may go back for a rug tomorrow....
I was tempted by some snakeskin boots until I found they were $750. Now I'm telling myself they would have pinched my toes.

And I wanted to share some amusing snippets to give you an end-of-week chuckle. you know when you Google something, Google paid ads appear beside it. Well, last year when I was writing Royal Blood and wanted to make sure I got all my vampire facts correct, I googled vampires. And the first ad that came up said, "Want to meet other vampire singles?"
Well, this week I was researching cyanide. I typed it in and up came the ads, Potassium cyanide, we offer best prices.... cyanide, best buys...

I ask you--has the world gone crazy?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do you Souffle?

Rhys reporting in from sunny but cold Santa Fe where I'm attending the Left Coast Crime convention. It starts today and I'll give an update on Saturday.
Rccently I've been trying to cut clutter in my house. We've lived in the same house since 1980 and we've amassed a lot of stuff over that time. As part of the weeding out process I've been going through old papers. They make fascinating reading--story ideas that never got written, letters children wrote from adventures around the world, letters from people who are no longer alive, and old diaries.

The one thing that strikes me from the early years of my marriage was that we entertained ALL THE TIME! It was not unusual to have more than one dinner party a week. And it seems that I cooked ambitious meals in those days. John was sales manager for Air India so we made a lot of multi course curry dinners, but I also ventured into the world of gourmet. I even started one dinner with a souffle, according to my diary. Did I ever know how to make souffles? I certainly don't now. And how did I have the time with little children?

Somehow I managed it and I don't remember finding it overwelming. Yet today an invitation to a dinner party at someone's house is rare. It's too stressful, too much trouble. It's easier to invite friends for drinks or to meet at a restaurant. Or not get together at all. We socialize much less. We're all too busy. We just don't cook. I know several people who have never used their kitchens.

Isn't that sad? Does this mean that we have fewer friends these days? Following yesterday's blog, has technology taken the place of friends and entertaining? So do share with me... do you still entertain? Do you still like to cook? Please tell me we're not heading into a world of isolation in our own techno cubicles.

Will the World be Taken Over By Technology?

Hi, Rhys here again. A couple of interest coincidencs happen this week:
A few weeks ago I was approached by my publisher Minotaur to write a Molly Murphy story that they would put up as an ebook, to help to lure new readers to my series at the time Bless the Bride came out. I did this—it’s a quel when Molly is a teenager, and it’s called The Amersham Rubies. So I was going to mention it at some stage on the blogs when I got an email from blog mate Julia Spencer Fleming asking me to mention her ebook promotions, tied to the release of her next book, One was a Solider. I’ll give Julia’s details at the bottom of this article.

There has been so much buzz recently on the future of publishing and whether the real paper book is now on the way of the dodo. Certainly my e-book sales are outstripping my real book sales on Amazon. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before the libraries all just stock ebooks. Some people tell me they still love the feel of a real book in their hands, but that won’t be true for the next generation. My seven year old grandson loves his Kindle. He likes the fact that he can make the type bigger and that he can listen to the book when he gets too tired to read.

What this will mean for writers, I’m not sure. However I don’t believe the world will be taken over by technology for a couple of reasons. One was that I was in a big craft store this week and it was really busy. Women and children were being crafty all around me, in spite of the fact that nobody these days needs to make anything. People enjoy making things. It’s in our genes. Look at the incredible popularity of all the craft mysteries—knitting, quilting, scrapbooking, cooking, you name it, there is a mystery series about it.

And I was in a friend’s house the other day admiring the art work on her walls when it struck me that we still like paintings, although photographs give a more accurate rendition. So why do we like art work when in a technological world we’d have photos and even holographs on our walls? And why do we like a real fire in the fireplace when our houses are well heated with a central furnace?
There must be something in us that likes the real, the traditional, the safe, the sturdy. We go to real plays rather than movies. We play real board games with real people. We cook for family gatherings when we could easily buy all the food pre-cooked. We get satisfaction from gardening and growing our own vegetables. We are not designed to be idle people. Our genes expect us to forage and hunt, to cut wood and make fires. And we like to turn pages to. So I’m hopeful that real books will continue to be part of our future. How about you?

And while we're on the subject of e-books, two announcements. My Molly story, The Amersham Rubies will finally be available as an e book on May 10th. And here's the snippet Julia wanted me to announce: Here's your chance to start Julia's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series for almost nothing. In the Bleak Midwinter is available as an e-book for only $2.99 through April 12 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Sony Reader Store and other online venues. Also available for the even nicer price of $0.00: Letters to a Soldier, with correspondence to and from the War Zone by characters in the upcoming One Was A Soldier. You can download it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Sony Reader Store and the iBookstore.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Springtime in Paris with Cara Black

RHYS: I've been experiencing a sense of something missing from my life this March and I've suddenly realized that it's not something, it's someone!

March is the month that Cara Black and I both have new books out and every other year we have done lots of events together, all around the Bay Area. The problem is that I'm still in Arizona and heading for Santa Fe tomorrow, so I've abandoned Cara to do her events alone.

So I felt the least I could do to make it up to her was to invite her back to Jungle Red Writers to tell us about her latest book in the Aimee LeDuc series. In case you have lived under a rock for the past ten years Cara sets her mysteries in the different arondissements of Paris. So let's get started.

RHYS: Okay Cara, which part of Paris are we visiting this time?

CARA: Rhys we're going to the 16th arrondisssement across the Seine. To the old village of Passy, where Empress Eugenie, Napoleon the III's wife, took the Passy waters and Balzac hid to write and escape his creditors. Incorporated into Parisin 1860 it's now exclusive, chic and a quartier where the maids were pearls.

RHYS: And what happens to Aimee?

CARA: This is definitely not Aimée's 'hood', nor mine, but she's pressed to do a favor for Morbier, her godfather a police commissaire, involving Xavier, his Basque haute bourgoise lover. Morbier, worried and off to an investigation in Lyon, insists Aimée find out what's going on with Xavier. When Xavierre's found murdered in the garden of her townhouseAimée investigates. Her trust in Morbier is shaken when evidence points to him as the suspect. During her investigations she uncovers ETA, the Basque terrorists, police corruption and links to a Spanish kidnapped princess.

RHYS: Speaking of Aimee, is she an alter ego? In what ways are you like her? Do you wish you were like her? Are glad you're not like her?

CARA: I wish I had Aimée's fashion sense and her luck in finding those couture bargains, let me tell you. But she does things I'd never do and I think that's what writing fiction's all about. I once saw an old poster in Paris circa 1900 of the cover of a cheap polar (like our pulp detectivenovels in the 50's) titled 'Madeleine la Detèctive' with a young woman in a corseted dress climbing a rope over the rooftops of Paris. Maybe that inspired me but there's a French tradition of bold detectives since Vidocq, the Arsene Lupin detective series that highlighted investigators with special skills.I'd really like to have her apartment on the Ile Saint Louis, though.

RHYS:.How do you decide where to go next?

CARA: Sense of place drives me. I find the district that speaks to me or where I think a story would happen organically and where Aimée would get involved. Passy, the district, was an area I avoided writing about for seven years. My friend lives there and kept begging me to write about her Passy but it was too chichi and fashionable. And it closes up early. But after several years I discovered this village like feel she'd talked about, this special ambiance and felt drawn to it. Especially when I discovered a Basque Cultural Center had existed there and I wanted to write about the Basque ETA and played with the ideas of of terrorists using an exclusive neighborhood.. Then I succumbed.

RHYS: Tell us how the research process works (and you have to slave away for your art in Paris)

CARA: Sometimes people forget or overlook that the Aimée Leduc Investigations take place in the mid-90's - people still pay in Francs, can smoke in the cafe's and Aimée uses dial-up. (this is pre-google) so I pay great attention to getting those details right. I consult a French hacker who happens to be a friend of my neighbor a French programmer and try to paint a snapshot or series of shots of that time in Paris. I consult archives in Paris, microfiche newspaper records of Le Monde so I know the weather, the traffic, what was on sale and what strikes were happening in Paris and can set a realistic backdrop of that time and what Aimée faced in her daily life and investigation.

Last November I was very luck and went drinking with the homicide squad, the Brigade Criminelle and then went to target practice. But that wasn't the same night we went drinking!

RHYS: Cara,as always I love hearing your stories. You always manage to find something exciting and quite unexpected. Bonne chance with the book!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Killer of LIttle Shepherds

Rhys here on True Crime Tuesday and today I am thrilled to have a true "star" of true crime writing. In fact it's Douglas Starr, the writer of The Killer of Little Shepherds.

Professor Douglas Starr is co-director of the graduate Program in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. The Killer of Little Shepherds is his second book. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, tells the four-century saga of how human blood became a commodity – from the first experimental transfusions in the 17th century, through the collection and mobilization of blood in modern wars, to a tragic denouement during the AIDS epidemic. It was published in seven languages, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (science and technology category) and was named to the "Best Books of the Year" lists of Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal. A PBS series based on the book, Red Gold, aired on more than 300 PBS stations in the U.S. and internationally. Starr's writings about science, medicine, public health and the environment have appeared in a variety of venues, including The New Republic, Science, Smithsonian, Public Television, National Public Radio. He has appeared as a commentator on ABC's Nightline, the BBC, CNN and NPR.

The Killer of Little Shepherds details a particular case in nineteenth century France, the first case that made use of modern forensics. It has already garnered Douglas world-wide accolades including an Edgar nomination. Doug and I were recently speakers at the same fundraiser and had a chance to chat at the dinner, so of course I snapped him up for my true crime day.

RHYS:Doug, it's a pleasure to welcome you to Jungle Red Writers and to congratulate you on the accolades this book has been garnering.
Your background is in journalism. Have you always been fascinated with true crime?

DOUG: Surprisingly, no. I’ve always been a science-guy. I’ve always written about the environment, medicine, public health and related subjects. I especially love the history of science, and the larger questions that the scientific method poses – and answers – for humanity. With those interests, I guess it was inevitable that I’d become interested in the theme of science and justice. And that, inevitably led to the story of this case.

RHYS: In what ways is a true crime book harder to write than mystery fiction?

DOUG: I’ve never written fiction, so can only imagine what it’s like based on having fiction writers as friends. You guys have it easy! (At least as I imagine it.) You do your research, and then once you establish your setting and basic facts you can lean back and invent! In non-fiction I never get to invent. Every detail must be factual. If I say it was a rainy day on March 2, 1898 it’s because I verified the weather for that day. If a character says something in one of my books it’s because I found that quote in testimony or news reports.

I’d compare non-fiction writing to creating a pointillist painting. Instead of using thousands of tiny dots of paint to create a portrait we non-fiction writers use thousands of data-bits. The challenge lies in standing back from those data bits to see the larger stories and themes.

RHYS: What drew you to this particular crime?

DOUG: I knew I wanted to write about the 1890s, when modern forensic science was developed. So I started rummaging about in the history of medicine journals in the Harvard Medical School Library, near my home. I tripped over an academic paper about this case, and started researching it. Then I found a book about the case by the man who solved it -- Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the greatest forensic scientist of his day. Over the months, as the evidence accumulated, I realized that this would be the perfect case to represent the birth of a new science. I was also struck by the larger-than-life nature of the protagonists: one of the most brilliant scientists of his day pursuing one of history’s worst serial killers. Finally, I wanted to resurrect the memory of Dr. Lacassagne. Most people never heard of him, but his name should be every bit as prominent as Darwin, Pasteur and others of his contemporaries

RHYS: Tell us briefly about the case that sparked the book.

DOUG: It was quite ghastly. Joseph Vacher was a vagabond in France who killed more than twice as many people as Jack the Ripper. I guess we’d call him a psychopath today. He would wander the countryside taking agricultural jobs, and when the impulse came upon him, stalk, kill and eviscerate young people. Then he’d hide the body, clean himself up and walk upwards of 20 miles to the next district, where no one had ever heard of him. Whole villages would be traumatized in the wake of his killings. The newspapers called him “The French Ripper,” or “the Killer of Shepherds,” because he liked to stalk shepherds, who tended to be young people in remote locations without witnesses.

What drew me to the story wasn’t the killings, but the brilliant ways in which investigators approached it. The Vacher case included so many elements we know as modern forensics – crime scene analysis, scientific autopsies, criminal profiling, modern interrogation, and psychological analysis, to name just a few. It really was a “poster child” for modern criminal investigation.

RHYS: How did you handle the gory aspects of this case? I'm impressed that you sat in on autopsies--what was that like?

DOUG: It wasn’t easy. During my research trips to Lyon, France, I got to know Dr. Daniel Malicier, who currently heads the Institute of Legal Medicine that Dr. Lacassagne created. Dr. Malicier invited me to sit in on a couple of criminal autopsies. Frankly, the experience gave me a nightmare – these were not pretty corpses at all, and one had been found after sitting for several weeks in an abandoned warehouse. It was worth it, though. In one of his most famous cases Dr. Lacassagne had to perform an autopsy on a body in an advanced state of decay. Because of my experience I was able to accurately re-create the details of that scene.

RHYS:Do you have another book in the works?

DOUG:Not yet. I’m looking, though. Every non-fiction book is an adventure, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next.

RHYS: What a fascinating subject. Thank you so much, Douglas Starr.

If you'd like to know more, there are a couple of short videos about the book.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mind Your Manners, Please

RHYS: I write historical mysteries and when I try to recreate the past the one thing that always strikes me is the formality of life. People were never addressed by their first name, except among family and intimate friends--and even then Mr. and Mrs. Bennett never used first names to each other, did they? We have letters written to John's father by his mother when he was at school and she signs them, "Your affectionate mother, B.M. Quin-Harkin."
Manners were important until recently. There were rules to society and you were judged on how well you obeyed these rules. You didn't call without a calling card. You didn't speak to strange young men without an official introduction. Even after WWII you never went out without hat and gloves. Dinners were often four or five courses, all with the correct silverware. We have inherited lovely boxes of fish knives and forks, pastry forks, coffee spoons, all of which lie at the bottom of the hutch and never see the light of day.
When we read a book that takes place in another time, some of these formalities come across as silly to us. And yet I lament the fact that manners have all but disappeared from society. I don't know about you, but it annoys me when the twenty year old receptionist at my dentist calls me by my first name. It annoys me when I dress up to go to the opera and the person in the next seat is wearing jeans and an old T shirt.

So maybe I'm old fashioned, but manners matter to me. I expect someone to hold open the door for me when I am following and always do the same for them. Most of the time they sail through without saying thank you. I would still give up my seat on a bus to a pregnant woman or a frail older person. Most people look the other way. I always say please and thank you the way I was brought up to. I write thank you notes after dinner parties.

So how about you? Do manners matter to you? Do you lament the passing of formality? Which aspects of modern informality bug you?

JULIA: I am a HUGE bug about manners. Ross and I have been drilling our children since they were born. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream against a great cultural tide, but let me tell you, nothing gives me as great a pleasure as another adult saying, "Your son/daughter has such nice manners." They address grown-ups as Ms. Harris or Mrs. Quin-Harkin, they know what bread-and-butter notes are, and they understand the underlying ideal of good manners: to show kindness and make others comfortable.
Rules and a certain level of formality actually makes for a more relaxed day-to-day experience. Sometimes physically, as in Rhys' example of people needing seats on a bus. Other time, it relieves anxiety - if everyone is following the dress code, for example, no one is going to feel awkward or embarrassed. And Rhys, I'm with you. It drives me mad when I go to the theatre (for which, we know, I have already paid too much) and see others in the audience schlumping around in ratty casual clothes. This is 21st Century America, folks, you can't convince me you spend SO much time dressed to the nines that you just HAVE to have a break from society's cruel constraints.

HANK: Our next door neighbors have two adorable daughters, three and five. The parents are vigilant--and its so rewarding to hear. "Look at Uncle Jonathan when you talk to him, honey. Remember to say thank you." And they do, and it's adorable. They can order food at a restaurant--why is it so charming to hear a five-year-old say: "May I have the chocolate chip pancakes, short stack, please? And chocolate milk, please?" And then she grins at her mother, saying: "Delicious, Mummy! But NOT nutritious!"
And what about air travel attire? Remember when it was an occasion? Yes, I know, it's now steerage and semi-torture, but ratty cut-offs and midriff-baring t-shirts don't make it any better.
Plus--may I just add: language? When did "suck" beocme okay? And P*ss? SO unpleasant.

DEB: I am one-hundred-percent with you on the manners. I know how to set a table. I hold open doors, even for men. I let other drivers merge in rush-hour traffic. I give up my seat on London buses and the Tube to those who are frail, elderly, or pregnant. I don't address people I don't know by their first names. (Our late neighbor lived to be a hundred-and-two, and although she asked me to use her given name, I could never bring myself to call her anything but "Mrs. Montgomery.") I dress up for the opera and the theatre, and though I will try to be comfortable on a miserable transatlantic flight, I still try to look presentable.
I must have done something right, because my grown daughter has lovely manners. She even says, "Yes, ma'am," and "Yes, sir," which I don't think I taught her! Such a nice Southern touch!
Where I have to admit I fall down is on the written thank-you notes. I always have good intentions but my organizational skills (or lack of) get the better of me . . .
Huge pet peeve? Getting email from readers with no salutation. I don't mind being addressed as "Dear Deborah." Or "Ms. Crombie." (I'm not "MRS." Crombie--Crombie is my ex-husband's name, so I'm a bit touchy on that one. "Ms." isn't perfect but it beats addressing women as "Mrs." when you don't know their marital status.) But by my lights email with no salutation is the virtual equivalent of "Hey you!" and is incredibly rude. Does that make me horribly old-fashioned?

ROBERTA: Maybe we all sound a little old-fashioned (I was going to say "like old farts", but that wouldn't be good manners, would it?), but I'm going to pile on with the manners. We were trained to stand up when adults came into the room, shake their hands, and call them Mr. and Mrs. I think our kids came out with pretty good manners overall--though lots of adults insist that kids call them by their first names. Now there's another subject--is that because they don't want to accept the responsibility of being a different generation and demanding some respect?
I'm not too good at dressing up for plane flights--it's such a miserable experience! But I do admire the people who look sharp with jewelry and heels etc. But in the end, elastic waistbands and as little underwear as decent will win out:--especially on the dreaded red-eye.

RHYS: No heels or jewelry for me on plane flights these days. You only have to take them on and off at security. I've even left a lovely scarf behind doing that. And I'm safety conscious too--in a fire panty-hose fuse to your legs. Synthetic fibers melt. I know that's paranoid but I tend to wear natural fibers but look professional (you never know, you might be upgraded).

HALLIE: I think that's a great motto: wear natural fibers, look professional... behave properly and smile like you mean it. Yes manners really matter, and I also think using them makes people around you behave better.
A big deal for us was getting our kids to behave well in restaurants, because eating out was not something I was about to give up just because I had a toddler in tow. Meltdowns in restaurants were rewarded with a one-way trip to the car. I still remember Molly sitting in a high chair at the restaurant, thoughtfully perusing the menu she'd been given even though she couldn't read, looking up at the waitress, and asking, "Excuse me, but do you have rice?" (A few years later it would have been... do you have squid?)

JAN: I think I love historical novels for that polite, repressed world they take us to. And I wish the whole world - including my children - had perfect table manners. But I've seen people very recently give up seats for a pregnant woman, and even some one offered his seta to a man who was holding a toddler (although the man turned it down.) But I also think along with that polite, repressed world, came class divisions people couldn't cross. And that despite a lack of formal manners, I've seen most people/strangers come through in a good way when someone needs a hand. (or a seat.)

RHYS: My goodness, aren't we Jungle Reds a civilized bunch? So do share your thoughts with us--do you wish we still lived in a society where manners mattered?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Women's Words

Want to work on your writing and support a good cause?

If you are within driving distance of Worcester, Mass, you might want to sign up for the all-day writing conference April 30th at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The Women's Words conference, organized by WPI and the YWCA, features fourteen published writers on six different morning panels: Children’s Lit, Nonfiction, Memoir, Fiction, Poetry and Journalism.

In the afternoon, the conference offers three different writing workshops on fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and a final panel including Noah Bombard, founder and editor of Worcester Wired; Lawrence Abramoff, publisher and former owner of Tatnuck Booksellers; and Lynne Riley, research librarian; will discuss thepracticalities of getting published.

The conference fee of $55 includes coffee and lunch, and all proceeds benefit Daybreak, a non-profit organization that provides emergency services to victims of domestic abuse. The goal of the conference, according to organizer Jim Dempsey, an adminstrator and instructor at WPI, is to bring attention to Daybreak and the very real problem of domestic abuse.

Scholarships will be awarded on the basis of need.

Writers include. April Jones Prince, children's literature; S.J. Wolfe, nonfiction; Eve Rifkah, poetry; Susan Rako, memoir;Lora Brueck, nonfiction; Judy Jaeger, fiction; Mary Bonina, poetry; Kim Newton, fiction; Dianne Williamson, non-fiction; and Janice Harvey, non-fiction,

I'll be speaking on the fiction panel - so if you are in the Worcester area April 30th, check it out.

For more information about the conference go to:

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Visualization

JAN: I've been practicing yoga a lot more diligently lately, and my instructor was trying to interest me in a teacher/training program. I really, really like my instructor, so I was mulling it over. But when I asked her how one makes the leap from teacher/training graduate to actual yoga instructor, she said, "Don't worry about that. If you think positively, it'll all work out. It's the Law of Attraction."

The Law of Attraction, for those of you who missed it, was the key concept of the bestselling book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Little did my yoga instructor know, I hated that book. I declined the teacher/training course.

Not that I'm against positive thinking, but The Secret was telling its readers that they could solve all their financial problems by just "visualizing" a big fat check being mailed to them for no apparent reason. And then their positive thoughts would "attract" the big fat check, and it would, for no apparent reason, turn up in their mailbox.

And yet...I know positive thinking works in some situations. For instance, I always play a better game of tennis when I visualize winning the point in advance. So the question is this: When is visualization useful, and when is it just plain balderdash?

My favorite blog, PSYBLOG, answered this question for me just this week, and I'm going to apply its findings to writing.

According to the study quoted in PSYBLOG, visualizing an outcome can actually screw you up. And fantasizing about wild success works against you. That's because it's a human characteristic to assume that everything is much easier than it actually is. Even with years and years of experience, we simply don't anticipate how much of any plan can go wrong or how much work may be involved. Just dreaming about the goal may actually reduce performance.

In other words, writers.... fantasizing about what you are going to say about your book on Oprah before you've actually finished the first chapter is counter productive. Accepting your Oscar while signing up for your first screenwriting course may make you skip important lessons.

BUT.... visualizing the process of getting to the goal can be useful. In one study (Pham and Taylor, 1999), students were asked to either visual the ultimate goal of scoring high in an exam, or visualize the steps they would take to get that high score. The students who visualized the steps scored way higher, partly because the visualizing helped focus their attention on what exactly needed to be done, and partly because the visualization helped reduce anxiety about the process. The students who just visualized the high score dreamed more and studied less.

So I think the moral of the PSYBLOG story for writers might go like this: We might spend our visualizing time more wisely if we visualized the parts of writing that we can actually control. This may mean visualizing ourselves writing through that impossible scene. Visualizing ourselves through the difficult middle, and after that is completed, feeling more confidant we will come up with a clever end. Visualizing the tough process of querying agents or dealing with questions or concerns from editors might help, too. And when the book comes out, we might visualize making time for all that promotion on the web and at bookstores, libraries and conferences.

As for me, I decided to visualize spending less time on yoga and more time on research for my next book. And right now I've got to about twenty difficult pages to finish what I hope is the last draft of my novel, so I'm off to visualize myself going over those pages with a fine tooth comb.

Anyone have any other ideas about what we might visualize?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Come and Find Me

JAN: It's the moment we've all be waiting for. Halle's new thriller Come and Find Me is about to hit the shelves. It's about a recluse who works and lives online who must now brave the real world when her sister goes missing.

I asked Hallie to tell us about her recluse protagonist, Diana Highsmith, a computer security expert and reformed hacker and how she came up with her character.

HALLIE: The inspiration for Diana in "Come and Find Me" came to me when I tripped over an ad for a year's supply of dehydrated and freeze-dried food. The photo showed a pyramid of cans in lovely pastel colors.

Chirpy ad copy explained: "...this package will give you variety, nutrition, and peace of mind."

Now, maybe if I lived on the San Andreas Fault or in a floodplain I might have ponied up $999.99. But instead I sat there trying to imagine who in the world would see 84 gallon-sized cans with a shelf life of up to 25 years as the ticket to peace of mind?

The answer was Diana, a recluse who is afraid to leave her own house. Someone who's been traumatized. As I gazed out my office window, looking at the one-story ranch house next door, I imagined that the person lived there.

JAN: On the surface Diana seems completely different from your last protagonist Ivy Rose. Is she or are there any similarities? And how hard was it to create a completely different heroine?

HALLIE: At one level they're very different. Ivy in "Never Tell a Lie" is married, pregnant, and desperate to have a child. Diana is single, a recluse whose only "real" friend, other than the ones she interacts with on the Internet, is her sister.

Both books are about betrayal and trust. In "Come and Find Me," Diana has to brave the real world when her sister vanishes. Along the way, she has to trust real people or she won't survive.

JAN: How did you go about your research into computer hacking and security?

HALLIE: I used to work in high tech, so networking with old friends I found a couple of amazing experts on computer security, one of them an expert on cyber-terrorism, another an ex-hacker. They helped me understand why people hack, and what real dangers they pose.

I envisioned Diana working in a virtual world where she could conduct business meetings, investigate security breaches, and "climb" Alpine mountains without ever leaving home. After a little research, I discovered Second Life on the Internet was just such a virtual world.

Armed with enough information to be dangerous, I created an account for myself on Second Life and logged in. First, I created an avatar, a skinny brunette with attitude. I figured out how to make her walk, run, turn, sit, and it was so exhilarating when I finally got her aloft. It felt like I was perched on her shoulders (think: Harry Potter on the shoulders of the Buckbeak the hippogriff) as she soared over the island at the entrance to Second Life. Not so exhilarating was when, seconds later, she plunged into the virtual blue (very blue) ocean. I actually found myself gasping for breath. After that my computer crashed.

Neither me nor my hardware were ready for SecondLife, so I turned to some generous folks who play and work in Second Life, and who let me ride shotgun while they went about their business in virtual reality.

Among other things, I learned that a good percentage of female avatars are created by male players. I learned that even bucolic corners of the virtual world can be infested by "griefers," mischief-makers who rain down toasters or phalluses on unsuspecting players, and how genuinely terrifying it feels to have a cage dropped down on your avatar, even when you know it's "only a game."

JAN: Where will you be talking about the book?

HALLIE: First stop is Brookline Booksmith next Monday, March 21 at 7 PM. Then BookEnds in Winchester Thursday, March 24. Then I'm off to Florida, Ohio, Pittsburgh (A shout-out to Mystery Lovers Bookshop!), Sacramento for the Bee Book Club, and more. I'm updating my web site with new events all the time. I hope lots of Jungle Red readers will COME AND FIND ME.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ellen Waterston

Even if you've never had a wild west fantasy of your own, Ellen Waterston's essay collection will make you want to give up your life and try ranching in Oregan's high desert, even as she details the tough environment and personal tragedy she endured there. That's how beautiful and insightful her new book is: Where The Crooked River Rises. Ellen is also the author of two collections of poetry, Between Desert Seasons and I Am Madagascar; both of which won the WILLA Award for Poetry in 2009 and 2005 respectively. Her memoir Then There Was No Mountain was selected by The Oregonian as one of the top ten books in 2003 and a finalist in memoir for Foreword Book-of-the-Year and WILLA book awards.
She is also the founder and president of the Writing Ranch and founder and director of The Nature of Words. She now lives in Bend, Oregon.

JAN: The essays in Where the Crooked River Rises are so lush, so thoughtful, so full of lessons learned, that I’m wondering how they evolved. Were they written over the years, and put into a collection? Or did you have the idea for a collection first?
ELLEN: They were written over approximately a four year span. Some of the essays appeared in reviews and journals prior to the publication of Where the Crooked River Rises. In late 2008 OSU Press encouraged me to assemble and submit a collection to them for consideration –exactly the motivation I needed!

JAN: Tell us a little bit about how a New England girl ended up in the Oregon desert.
ELLEN: In my late teens I was a guest on a Montana ranch one summer and fell in love with the notion of a pearl of a life in an oyster of a setting. I delighted to think I could live that far removed from the WASP New England culture I had grown up in.

JAN: Also why you left, and how difficult was it to adapt to your new environment?
ELLEN: I left New England because I was young and in love with a man who also wanted to escape New England and lead a rancher’s life. I naively (ya think?) thought I was perpetuating a dude ranch experience. Instead I soon found myself slaughtering chickens, pulling calves, pushing cows, riding days on end, cooking for fifteen during the summer months and so on. It was never dull, always exciting, rigorous, adventurous and against a natural backdrop to die for.

JAN: What struck me about the essays is how beautifully you write about the desert, how you made me want to go there, even though I always thought I hated deserts. Is the harsh terrain of the desert, which you come to love, a metaphor for the obstacles in your life while you lived there?
ELLEN: Sex, drugs and country and western. My James Dean-esque, fellow New Englander-turned-rancher, love-of-my-life husband became a drug addict and was unable to get that drug monkey off his back. My three young children and I were not prepared for all the harsh ways that would affect each of our lives. As a suddenly-single mother, I never caught my breath, never felt I was doing anything at an even lope but rather running scared from a universe that suddenly seemed unfriendly. He took his own life in 2009. The ranching West I fantasized about and the one I experienced turned out to be very different. But you are right, the opportunity to live on the land and learn from the land is one I would never trade. As my life has unfolded, with all the accompanying zigs and zags, the high desert landscape has truly been a source of strength. I know that sounds Hallmark-y, but I mean it. As I state in my dedication to my former husband, “I wouldn’t have done it without you.” I am so glad I did.

JAN: I was captivated by the ranchers before you, the hard lives and the tight knit community, how did you choose which stories to illuminate?
ELLEN: There are so many I could have chosen. I hope to pen more of these vignettes. Does the openness of the remote West put those who live there in relief? Or is it because they are eccentric and vivid that they choose that way of life? Not sure which comes first. But the people I encountered and profiled each, for me, illuminated an aspect of the desert and, I hope, maybe even an aspect of each of us that I felt was worth mentioning.

JAN: You have also written a memoir, Then There Was No Mountain. Since there seemed a bit of the memoir in the essays, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the different processes involved in each.
ELLEN: These personal essays are short memoirs more than anything as they are built on my truest impression and recollection of my experience relative to the place or person the essay is built on. They aren’t simply historical or expository but include the pausing and pondering typical of memoir.

JAN: Tell us a little about the Writing Ranch that you founded.
ELLEN: Here’s the recipe for sabotaging a writing practice – start the Writing Ranch, which offers retreats and workshops for merging writers, and The Nature of Words, a literary non-profit, both based in Bend, Oregon. I founded them both, love them both, and/but it’s very tough to observe a regular writing practice in the midst. The Writing Ranch is a virtual ranch that offers traditional writing classes “in town” and leads groups into the high desert and to the desert of the Baja California Sur for writing retreats. The Nature of words is a seven-year-old organization that holds an annual literary festival each November in Bend, Oregon and the rest of the time offers writing workshops and residencies in mainstream and alternative educational programs throughout Central Oregon.

For more information please visit: