Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where I Write by Sally Goldenbaum

SALLY GOLDENBAUM: Many, many thanks to the wonderful Reds for inviting me to spend some time with all of you today. I’m so happy to be here.

Wherever here might be, that is. . .

My writing (and reading) life is a wandering one, ruled by some mysterious force. Do any of you have this problem? I’ve lived in the same town, on the same street, in the same house for decades. I love my house and I love being home. But when I’ve finished my coffee and am ready to start the work day, I resist my little office beneath the eaves. It doesn’t call to me.  So off I go, searching for the perfect writing spot.

A few weeks ago the NY Times ran an article about where writers write. “Ah,” I thought. “Kindred wanderers.” The pictures of Joyce Carol Oates’ office and Mona Simpson’s kitchen (where she writes) were lovely, but only Colson Whitehead wandered. And he didn’t go very far—only moving from a spare room to a dining room to a corner of the living room to a room with a view.
But their stories reminded me that I have been able to write a book at home—but only with help. One summer Nancy Pickard—a writer and friend--—and I were both facing tough deadlines.We needed discipline (mostly me) and a place to write. We decided to try my porch—the weather was peasant and backyard quiet. We imposed strict rules to ensure a full day of writing. Watching Nancy diligently writing was exactly the impetus (guilt had a tiny role) to keep me from doing laundry. And it worked. The muses found the porch and at the end of that summer Nancy had completed the manuscript for The Scent of Rain and Lightning and I had finished The Wedding Shawl.

But then winter came, snow filled the porch, Nancy moved to a new condo with its own writing space.

And my wanderlust returned.
About that time, I saw an HGTV show featuring a couple looking for their dream home. They had trouble finding one because the husband—a writer—could only write in a bathtub—and none of the prospective homes had one he considered suitable. (Lots of questions surfaced in my head—is there water in the tub? A pillow on the bottom? A waterproof computer on his knees? And I was VERY curious about what he wrote.) That story convinced me I wasn’t as bad off as I thought. Maybe wandering was a GOOD thing—certainly preferable to our bathtub, anyway. I simply needed to follow the ‘force’—whatever that mysterious thing is that primes the pump and gets the creative juices flowing. It didn’t seem to be my house—and it certainly wasn’t  my bathtub.
One autumn I wandered farther than usual—1400 hundred miles or so— and found a place filled with muses—Cape Ann, MA, where my husband and I rented a tiny place with a magnificent ocean view. It’s where the Seaside Knitters Mysteries are set, and walking the shore not only gave me the idea for Angora Alibi, it gave me the real life Pleasant Street Tea shop. This comfortable cafe with its deep couches and great Paninis called to me. It was exactly the place to write A Fatal Fleece, and as New England leaves turned glorious colors, thoughts and scenes and story of the mysterious death of an old fisherman with a big heart were born.

Back home in Prairie Village my choices are not as picturesque (not a single ocean in Kansas!). But I listen hard for the call of a muse. Some days the friendly baristas at the neighborhood Starbucks beckon, and I block out the cappuccino machines and gossip and sweet babies and listen instead to words in my head.

Other days, I wander down the road to our local library and depend on the millions of words around me to inspire great and murderous thoughts. (And when I need a break I walk down the mystery aisles and touch the books of my favorite authors, absorbing their magical vibes.)

And then, finally, summer comes back and the porch calls. Usually. But not always. Recently I retreated to Nancy’s new deck instead. My daughter-in-law, son and family (3 children under 4, 2 dogs, and a cat) moved in with us for a few months. The porch, soon filled with Legos and talking toys, had pushed the muses away. But Nancy’s deck, with its view of a duck pond and jogging trails, was perfect and the words began to flow—until finally, miraculously, Murder in Merino came to life.
Different seasons, different stories, different life situations require different writing spaces for me. Maybe that’s what wandering is all about. As Colson Whitehead asks, “Where’s the good mojo today?” What’s going to make the similes pop, the red herrings fly?
So you look for the mojo. It may be invisible, but it’s there. Is it on a porch, a tea shop or  coffee shop, a friend’s place? And then you find it and the words flow, the red herrings fall into your lap, the scenes pop.
Until they don’t. And then, as Whitehead says, the hunt begins all over again.
And so I wander…and listen…

Sally is offering a copy of both Murder in Merino and Angora Alibi to comments today! So let us know where you write--or do your best thinking...

Please visit her on Facebook.
Or on her Website.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cathy Ace on location, location, location!

HALLIE EPHRON: It was my pleasure to find myself sitting next to Cathy Ace at the Surrey Writers Conference in British Columbia. We got to chitchatting as we longingly watched the lines of readers snaking their way up to get books signed by Diana Gabaldon and Anne Perry.

With a brand new book just out (The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb), I invited Cathy to talk about Cait Morgan, her "Welsh Canadian foodie criminologist sleuth" who definitely gets around. She travels, she eats, and one can only hope that Cathy writes that aspect of her adventures from firsthand experience.

CATHY ACE: I’ll tell you a secret—I’ve been everywhere she’s been, eaten everything she’s eaten, and drunk  everything she’s drunk. Who? My protagonist, Cait Morgan, my Welsh Canadian foodie criminologist sleuth. Luckily for her, I’ve travelled a lot. And luckily for me, she manages to find a dead body, or two, wherever she goes.

If I’m honest—and I understand the Reds like that—the real reason I move Cait about so much, and have her eat and drink her way through her books, is because it gives me the chance to revisit places, and flavors, I miss. I truly believe a location can become a character in a book, and I try to make sure that the story I am writing could only have happened in the specific locale I have selected.

My first Cait Morgan Mystery, The Corpse with the Silver Tongue, is set in Nice where I lived for several months each year for almost a decade. Good friends of mine owned an apartment in the block that was Gestapo Headquarters during WWII, and whenever I visited for dinner, or l'apéro, I couldn’t help but want to set a murder mystery there. Wherever you walk in Cimiez, you’re constantly treading upon thousands of years of human history. So a tale which involved a “Collar of Death” which had travelled from Wales to the south of France, and had a history reaching back millennia, nibbled at the fringes of my mind, even as I nibbled at the foie gras.

I couldn’t ignore the Province of British Columbia, where I live and have  a great fondness for the Okanagan Valley and the vineyards around the lake. Yes, my research for The Corpse with the Golden Nose involved exhaustive wine tasting, but I applied myself, and spent a good deal of time in and around Kelowna observing, nibbling, and sipping. But I didn’t want my fictitious ageing rock-star vintner to be confused with any of the real ones who live there, and I think I managed it. (No law suits yet!)

Mexico attracts a great deal of press coverage about the crime which, sadly, is all too real there. A rich cultural heritage lies beyond the inevitable stalls laden with tourist crafts, and bars selling cheap beer-and-shots combos. In The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb I wanted to use the Pacific coastal towns around Puerto Vallarta as a backdrop for a cast of mixed ethnicity and, only because the book needed it, duplicitousness. The book is set on a tequila-producing agave plantation, so once again I had to carry out some onerous research. Believe me when I tell you that the recuperative abilities I possessed when researching Cait first mystery are not what they once were!

In September 2014, Cait, who usually grapples with closed circle mysteries, takes on a closed room mystery in The Corpse with the Platinum Hair.

Luckily for her she’s trapped in one of the most exclusive restaurants in Las Vegas. Yes—Vegas, Baby…but maybe not the one you think you know.

Am I the only person who visits a place, and immediately starts to work out how it can become a great location for a murder? Please tell me I’m not alone?

HALLIE: I confess I read Donna Leon for a trip to Venice, Rhys and Susan for a trip back in time to England, Debs to London, Lucy to Key West. Where do you like to travels take you in your mystery reading?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mothers In Law

LUCY BURDETTE:  I was clearing out some overstuffed folders on my desk when I came across this photo. You will see immediately why I had to blog about it. The dilemma became, is this a blog about mothers-in-law? Or hats? With Mother's Day on the horizon, I opted for mothers-in-law.

This photo is early in my relationship with Dorothy. John and I had each been married before--I know she was worried about whether I'd be good for him. Whether this time he'd picked the right woman. Two years after we were married, I invited Dorothy to a member-guest golf tournament at our club.  I was a very new golfer and nervous about everything. Would we get along? Would I play well enough to avoid humiliation? (Apparently I wasn't worried about the hat.)

That morning at breakfast we exchanged dreams. I dreamed that we got hopelessly lost on the golf course. She dreamed that they told her she was too old to play. We laughed and laughed. And then we were assigned to play with elderly twins, who were dreadful golfers but quite entertaining. We still love reliving that day--it definitely cemented our friendship.

She is almost 101 now (can you imagine) and still sharp as a tack. She keeps tabs on her seven kids and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and has lots of opinions about life. (One of my other favorite memories was arriving at her apartment during the last presidential race. She was so relieved to have another Obama supporter in the room to help the president make it through the last debate.) I consider myself very lucky in the mother-in-law department!

What about you Reds, mother in law or even daughter in law stories? It's not an easy job either way...

HALLIE EPHRON: My mother-in-law, Freda, was a lovely woman and a terrific grandma to our two girls. Even in her 90s she could walk my feet off in the mall. She'd been quite a looker in her youth, and took a long time to settle down and get married. Her mother used to sew her outfits -- she'd bring her a picture of what she wanted and her mother would whip it up. Her mother was a terrific cook.

Neither cooking nor sewing got passed down to Freda. Her one culinary success was meatballs. Easiest recipe ever. 1 pound of chopped meat rolled into 1" balls. Put them in a sauce pan. Dump over them 8-12 ounces of canned Hunts Tomato Sauce, a good handful of brown sugar, and about 1/4 cup of vinegar. Cook slowly for about an hour and serve over rice. Yummy.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I loved my mother-in-law, Ida,  but she was truly fierce, and quite the piece of work. She was assistant principal at VanBuren High School in New York City, and also a licensed marriage and family counselor. (You'll see why that's funny in a moment.) Like all intellectuals at the time  (in the fifties), she and her husband flirted with Communism.  I asked her, fascinated, about the "meetings." Did they really advocate the overthrow of the US Government?" She said "Mostly the women made coffee." 

Jonathan's mom

 She was a wonderful poet, truly gifted. She took classes in French (she was fluent)  and in Human Sexuality (no comment) at Hunter College when she was well into her nineties, and died at 94.

However. She could be so opinionated that after the weekend I met her, Jonathan's friends all called him to see if I had survived. Everyone knew about "Black Thanksgiving," after which, as a result of Ida's inability to see the other side of any question or to believe that she might be wrong, the entire family and a whole group of friends stopped talking to each other for a year. Once, when a family member (not me), failed to send her a thank you note, she also stopped talking to them. (I'm not sure the person was upset by that.)
When she first saw me, she said "My, you're a big one, aren't you?"  I absolutely miss her. 

Shirley Dale Wilson, dancing with Dr. Paul Kincaid Wilson.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've had two. My ex--former (?) mother-in-law is German, a war refugee who met my ex-husband's father after WWII when he was in the British army and she was in a refugee camp.  She was QUITE difficult and didn't like me at all.  I see now that she had her reasons, but it was a rocky relationship that eventually improved, then went south with the divorce.  She's 93 now, the same age as my mother would have been, and still sharp as a tack. In spite of past disagreements, I miss her, and have great admiration for the things she endured in her life.

Now, mother-in-law #2, Lee, I have known since I was a teenager.  I also envy the fact that she was incredibly glamorous when she was young! She puts up with the fact that I'm always busy and never have as much time as I'd like to spend with the family.  This Christmas, the first without my mom, she gave me a huge hug and said, "Deb, I'm your mother now."

RHYS BOWEN: I was terrified to meet my mother-in-law. I married John in Australia and then moved to California so it was over a year before I met my new relatives. But I heard enough about her--what a wonderful cook she was, how organized she was, what a gracious hostess--pictures of how elegant she looked when she attended high level functions around the world, and wintered in Barbados, and had ancestors who owned Sutton Place and various other stately homes. When I met her she turned out to be gracious but sensitive. They came over for the birth of our first child and she said, "Let me know what you'd like me to handle while you're resting. Shall I just take over the cooking and leave you time with the baby?"

And she was a fabulous cook. Absolutely fabulous. It was her raison d'etre. She had a housekeeper and so all her energy and creativity was focused on her cooking. For lunch she would make one sauce for the meat, one for the vegetables, brilliant desserts, little cakes for tea. My mouth still waters when I think about her food. And I have a big book of recipes that she wrote out for me.  I don't make them often because they are all complicated and require zillions of ingredients and hours of preparation.

It was only after she died, rather young, that I realized what a lonely life she led. My father-in-law had a distinguished career and was involved in a life that didn't usually include her. Her children went to boarding school. She had no real friends. No wonder cooking made her feel useful during those long days.  The other thing I discovered about her was that she looked so distinguished and upper class but she loved dirty jokes and had this barmaid's laugh.  She was also a lovely grandma, although she never let me really get close to her. 

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: My mother-in-law, Miss Edna, has had a difficult week, but is doing much better now. She says "Cheers, darlings" — and is busy reading Beatriz Williams's THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT.
LUCY: So glad she's feeling better! Cheers back at you Edna! xo

: I've never had a mother-in-law. Ross's mother died shortly after he and I started dating - she had been in a nursing home due to her multiple sclerosis and passed on from pneumonia. But I did have the most fabulous father-in-law a bride could ask for. Victor was funny, opinionated, high-handed and generous to a fault. He loved me and his grandkids (and his sons, of course.)  Thanks to his desire to combine his two passions, family and travel, we went to Cancun regularly, to Key West, skiing in Montreal, on safari to Africa, and twice to Hawaii. When he died, too young, at 68, he didn't leave us much in the way of money or possessions. He had already given away what was most valuable: his time and his company. When I become a mother-in-law (someday in the future, I hasten to add!) I plan to model myself on Victor.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rhys's Sunday Gripe

Rhys: I've had a tough few weeks--book tour, rushing around the countryside, finishing a book, doing I thought I'd take a nice long relaxing bath. I checked the vanity and found a packet of "Relaxing Pear and Rosemary Bath tea".
I ran the bath. I took off my clothes.  And then I tried to open the sachet of tea. It is encased in plastic and won't open.  There are no scissors in this bathroom and I'm naked.  So it looks like no relaxing bath for me.
And this is not an isolated incident. A week ago I had to go to a reception. When we got to the city I realized I didn't have a lipstick in my purse. So I popped into the drugstore to buy one.  In the Ladies room at the hotel I tried to open it. Again sealed in plastic and won't even open with my teeth.

So my gripe is this: Why do they need to package things so ridiculously well? I've recently had boxes of soup that say "Tear along this line" and then won't tear. Even my packet of peanuts on the plane won't open. And when we're talking electronics, the plastic in which they are sealed needs an industrial-level chain saw to cut into it.
Is this all result of things like the Tylenol Scare years ago? We must keep our peanuts and soup and lipsticks and relaxing bath teas safe from maniacs who might wish to tamper with them?

I remember the good old days. In my childhood I lived in a village and my mother would send me to Smallbones the Grocer (I'm not making this up). He had big open bins of sugar, flour, raisins, barley, beans all over the store. You'd ask for a pound and he'd dig in the scoop and fill a paper bag, twisting it shut. As far as I know nobody ever got sick from this unhygenic practice and the costs were kept down and the landfills didn't fill up with stuff that will never biodegrade. And nobody went mad trying to open anything.

Off for a relaxing bath with Epsom Salts (if I can open them)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rhys chats with Hannah Dennison

RHYS BOWEN: Hannah Dennison is one of my favorite people in the universe so when I knew she had a new book coming out, I had to snag her for my Jungle Red week. She writes with that wonderful understated British wit about a British countryside we all long to visit. Her new book, HONEYCHURCH HALL is coming out on May 13th and I urge you all to rush to your pre-order buttons. You're in for a fun, delightful treat.
And I am delighted to have Hannah here today:

Rhys: Honeychurch Hall is a new departure for you—where did the inspiration come
from? I get a distinct Downton Abbey feel—are you a big fan?

Hannah: I was inspired by my mother’s rash purchase of a wing in a country house in Devon at age 76. When most widows of her advanced years would be heading off to a retirement village, Mum decided that at last she had the freedom to do what she jolly well wanted and there was nothing any of us could do to stop her! She completely reinvented her life and now, at 85, is in robust health, working as a docent at Greenway (Agatha Christie’s summer home) and has never been happier. As for Downton Abbey, who does not love that show! The chance to weave in a contemporary upstairs-downstairs take with “Murder at Honeychurch Hall” was the icing on the cake.

Rhys: Your heroine is an antiques expert—how about you? Do you collect antiques? Do you own antique stuffed mice?

Hannah: Following my stint as an obituary writer chronicled in my other series – The Vicky Hill Mysteries – I went to work for Leonard Lassalle, an antique dealer who ran a beautiful shop in The Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent. I absolutely loved that job. He was French and specialized in 17th century English and European furniture, paintings, Delft pottery and treen. Leonard taught me a lot but not about antique toys in which he had no interest at all. In fact, up until I was introduced to the Merrythought Jerry mice by accident (that ended up providing a key clue in the first Honeychurch Hall mystery), I’d never heard of them! On doing some research I subsequently discovered that the Merrythought toy factory in Ironbridge, Shropshire, England produced them in the 1960s and 1970s. The company—eighty years on and still family owned—were licensed to make the MGM Jerry mouse from the Tom and Jerry Show. And honestly, they are really cute and yes, I own two.

Rhys: Your books are set in the English countryside—does this England still exist or are you attempting to recreate the England of your childhood/nostalgia or fantasy?

Hannah: I wish the England of my childhood did still exist but it doesn’t. Having the opportunity to recreate my memory warms my heart. Honeychurch Hall itself is based on two privately owned residences in Devon—my mother’s home near Totnes and Hillersdon House in Cullompton which is currently being restored—literally—to it’s former glory. Mike Lloyd, my friend and the new owner, has unearthed the original plans dating from the mid-seventeen hundreds and he’s following them to the letter—putting back the lakes, introducing deer, and sprucing up the grotto and stumpery.  The ghosts that make an occasional appearance in Honeychurch Hall are all based on those drifting around Hillersdon House.

Rhys: The mother—what a fun and awful character. Where did she come from?

Hannah: Iris Stanford is a mixture of my own lovely Mum (the good bits), an eccentric old spinster who lived in the village where I was born, and myself! Of course, my mother is not a romance writer of steamy bodice-rippers. In fact I have you to thank for suggesting that Iris have that secret, Rhys! I’ve had a lot of fun writing “excerpts” under Iris’s pseudonym of Krystalle Storm.  And if you ask if I share any similarities with my protagonist, the TV celebrity Kat Stanford, I would say a definite no. She’s far too sensible and if anything, reminds me of my own daughter.

Rhys: You now live in the US. What do you miss most about England? What do you do when you go back?  (I have to have cream teas/Cornish pasties/fish and chips and go to friendly local pubs)

Hannah: I miss everything except London and the big cities. I’m still a country girl at heart. I miss the sound of blackbirds singing on a summer’s evening, walking the coastal paths of the West Country, the taste of real Devonshire clotted cream—not the stuff in a jar; Mum’s Sunday Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings, but most of all the sense of history that exudes from centuries old castles and forests where four hundred year-old oak trees still stand. Most of all, I miss my family but America has been very good to me. It’s where I first got published and where I found true love after years of searching in a barren wasteland of broken dreams … oh sorry … Krystalle Storm just popped out …

RHYS: Thank you, Hannah. And good luck with the new series!
Hannah will be giving away a copy of Honeychurch Hall so make sure you comment today. 

Thanks for inviting me today!


Murder at Honeychurch Hall will be published May 13, 2014 (Minotaur)


Friday, April 25, 2014

A Culinary Tour of China with Nicole Mones

RHYS: Nobody knows China better than Nicole Mones,and nobody writes about it better either. We were speakers several years ago at the same conference and I was fascinated by her story of being the first Western woman to do business in Chairman Mao's China. So I read one of her  books, was blown away and gobbled up the others. The Last Chinese Chef, part mystery, part culinary journey is my favorite so far. My only complaint--she doesn't write fast enough. But now I'm smiling again because she has a new book out, Night in Shanghai. I met her a couple of weeks ago at another literary event and snagged her for Jungle Reds.

So take it away, Nicole:

     When my friend Nancy and I decided to spend a month in China this fall, we had only one agenda:  review restaurants. With my new historical novel Night in Shanghai coming out, it was time to update my restaurant listings in the big Chinese cities—and that meant photos and bon mots for two meals a day. A tough job, but someone’s got to do it, because I don’t want anybody to waste a meal, or even a calorie, on their China trip. This being Nancy’s first trip to China, we did do a little sightseeing… after which we retired to the hotel every late afternoon, to rest and read novels and gird our loins before dinner. That is the right of all women d’un certain age.  Finally, this being Nancy’s first trip to China, we devoted the rest of each day to sightseeing—at least, after dawdling over coffee and gossiping for half the morning.

Little Chicken Balls”

    We hit some fine restaurants on this trip. In Shanghai, we followed the critics to the Michelin-starred Xin Dau Ji, where phenomenally fresh, plump, pink prawn dumplings were followed by a dish of boneless chicken dusted with Sichuan peppercorn powder and presented atop crunchy fried greens—the final creation adorably called ‘little chicken balls’ in Chinese. Very good, but not amazing.  Beijing was also full of restaurants striving to be high-end, including those specializing in exquisite vegan “artifice” dishes (skewered mushrooms masquerading as lamb; a shaped, deep-fried puree of potato masquerading as a carrot; a whole separate menu for rare teas). Ho hum.


 Zuo Lin You She in Beijing


    What we found ourselves dreaming of, and going back to, was simple, street-level food. In Beijing, we ignored our long list of targets in favor of a repeat visit to Zuo Lin You She, a dive-y place specializing in long, cigar-shaped, pan-fried dumplings with all manner of savory fillings… lamb with onions, beef with coriander, pork with chives, tofu with mustard greens, and dozens more we never got to.  They also had a delicious shredded-veggie cold plate called, improbably, ‘hot pickled mustard tuber’. In the Yunnan tourist town of Lijiang, in southwest China, near the border with Myanmar, we went back again and again to a street stall that served the most marvelous eggplants, butterflied, griddled to perfection, and covered with minced pork and peppers… a complete and perfect meal. We had it four times.  We hated to even leave town.

    But the single best meal we had last fall was north of there, up on the Tibetan Plateau, in Zhongdian’s “old town” of Dukezong—an ancient, labyrinthine quarter of narrow, hilly, cobbled lanes, lined by old, wood-frame Tibetan houses. It was my second visit to Dukezong, and I knew it was not a cuisine destination, except for two things, yak and wild mushrooms. The mushrooms we found, sautéed to a crispy tangle and sprinkled with salt, but delicious yak was harder.


Finally a local woman pointed us up to a small café at the top of a steep, twisting lane, which she said captured “local flavor”. When we walked in, pulling off our gloves, the mother and her two sons jumped up to prepare an unforgettable yak soup…  rich broth deep with the grassy, peppery flavor of yak, thickened with lean ground meat, chunky vegetables, and small, chewy, hand-formed orecchiette-style noodles.  We ate the entire tureen in awe, while Mom smiled her approval.

That soup is not the only reason I’m glad to have stopped for three days in Dukezong. Some weeks after left, on January 11, a heater in a small guesthouse started a fire, which quickly spread. In lanes to narrow for fire trucks, people passed buckets of water from hand to hand, to no avail. It took ten hours for Dukezong, which had stood for 1300 years, to burn to the ground.

I bet it will be rebuilt anew, but in charming old style, a toy village that at least provides employment and economic opportunity for local people. And because the toy town will be new, and “nice,” with internet and bars and entertainment, Chinese tourists will be drawn to it in droves, Dukezong people will end up making more money, and with that, they will let go of all that was lost.

It’s so China.

Nicole Mones is the acclaimed author of four novels about China. Her latest, NIGHT IN SHANGHAI , is  the first novel based on the true experiences of African American musicians in the Chinese jazz age—and what happened when World War II exploded around them It's been called "Historical Fiction at its Finest" by NPR. AND... Nicole will give away an autographed copy to her favorite comment of the day.




Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Everyone Should Have an Aunt Dove, a guest post by Deanna Raybourn

Today, we're delighted to have New York Times bestselling novelist Deanna Raybourn as our guest. Like our own Debs, Deanna is Texan - a 6th-generation native! She graduated with a double major in English and history from the University of Texas at San Antonio, the only university in the world to have an annual Golf Cart Parade.  Deanna's novels, which have been nominated for five RITAs, two RT Reviewers’ Choice awards, the Agatha, two Dilys Winns, a Last Laugh, and three du Mauriers, are set in Victorian England and the European colonial world between wars. A long way from the Lone Star State? Yes, but as Deanna shares with us here, she's had inspiration along the way...

In all the books I’ve written—five series novels, three stand-alones, four novellas—I’ve never based a character on someone I know. Until now. In CITY OF JASMINE, I created the rather gloriously over-the-top Aunt Dove, a larger-than-life woman who wears enormous costume jewels and totes a parrot named Arthur Wellesley on a biplane tour around the world. Elderly in the 1920s setting of CITY OF JASMINE, Aunt Dove was once a famous Victorian explorer, an adventuress who made her way by her wits and her people skills. She has drunk Russian grand dukes under the table and may have started a minor land war in South America. She has had more lovers than she can count, and no one quite knows what happened during a few months when she went missing in 1878 after discovering absinthe…

Aunt Dove is loosely based on my own great-aunt, a woman who charmed my family so much that when she divorced my great-uncle—the first in her string of husbands--we kept her. She was a flamboyant dresser, preferring gold lamé slippers with curled-up toes and embellished caftans. If it was brightly colored and bejeweled, she liked it, and everywhere she went, she trailed a cloud of Youth Dew, spicy and strong and unforgettable, just like her. She had the decorating instincts of a magpie; the shinier, the better. She once gave me a small crystal chandelier that hangs over the desk in my study. Every day when I write, I do it with the warm, glittering glow of that light and the memory of a woman who made Auntie Mame look like an amateur. 
And every day I try to think about the life lessons I learned from her. Now, without a string of husbands to my credit—I’m still doing delightfully well with the one I acquired in college—I haven’t known quite the same ups and downs that she experienced. But I have learned resiliency, the ability to look today in the face and spit in its eye and say, “Was that the best you’ve got? Because I’m going to kick you into tomorrow.” At least I hope I have! And I know that when you’re kicking today’s tail between its legs, you need to do it with a good pedicure. (I never knew my great aunt not to wear coral polish on her toes. I always keep mine spiffy, but I prefer a nice blood red—venous, not arterial.) 

I also know that it’s important not to save things for special occasions. Every day was a special occasion in my great aunt’s book. So she stocked her house with fresh flowers and wore the good perfume, put on dance music and poured a cocktail. She lived the whole of her life that way, never saving her enthusiasm for the big things. To her, everything was big, and everything deserved her excitement. Even in her 70s she was exuberant, with a childlike enthusiasm for anything that thrilled her. A great conversation, a lovely meal, time with people she adored, she bubbled over with joy for all these things.

And yet. I never knew anybody quite as perfectly pragmatic when circumstances demanded it. Her fortunes—like those of all good adventuresses—rose and fell. When they were high, she kicked up her heels and painted the town red—jungle red! And when they were low, she rolled up her sleeves, loaded on the rhinestones, and got to work rebuilding, one brick at a time. All in all, she was a dame—in the very best sense of the word. I’m not sure we even have dames any more, but if we do, I aim to be one when I’m old and sassy and still painting my toenails red.
So, really, was there any way I could NOT base a character on a woman like that? Because she already was a character—with more stories than I could ever tell.

Meet Aunt Dove for the first time in WHISPER OF JASMINE, the free digital prequel novella to CITY OF JASMINE.

What about you, dear readers? Do you have an Aunt Dove in your life? Or ARE you the Aunt Dove in someone else's?

You can learn more about Deanna's books, and read excerpts, at her website. You can friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @deannaraybourn, and join her at her blog. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rhys's Rules of Mystery Writing

RHYS BOWEN: Beginning writers often ask me if there are rules for writing mystery novels.  If you check online there are all kinds of 10 Commandments for writing mysteries. Ronald Knox and S.S. Van Dine compiled the most famous ones in the late Nineteen Twenties, in the Golden Age of mysteries. They are mostly concerned with the fairness of the plot, no tricks, no other-worldly intervention. But some of them make me smile, including one rule that says "No Chinamen." Oh dear, do you think I should tell them that the whole plot of Bless the Bride, one of my Molly Murphy books, takes place in New York's Chinatown and is teeming with what they refer to as "Chinamen"?

Another rule of theirs that makes me smile is "Absolutely no romance allowed."
Again, I'm a hopeless failure in this respect. All of my books have a romance going through them. Actually I LOVE books with that hint of romance in them. I LOVE characters who fall in love, have heartaches, disappointments, betrayals AND happy endings--don't you?

And when I read lists of rules I realize that I am not good at keeping most of them.  In fact I'd probably get drummed out of the olden day Detection Circle.

Here are some of the most cited rules. See what you think? Do they still apply today? Should they?

1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.

 This is where the mystery has really evolved from the whodunit to the whydunit. No longer just a puzzle, it's more a psychological drama. If I had to sum up a good mystery in one sentence I'd say IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SLEUTH. If we have an interesting, complex, human character to follow we will happily follow her through any twists and turns of plot. We will worry about her, fear for her and rejoice with her. My fans never say "I can't wait for your next complex plot." They say "When is Molly/Georgie coming back?"

2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on.

 I agree with the first, since the story is the detective's story. And I do agree that you have to play fair. You can't introduce a character in the last chapter and say "I knew this serial killer was hiding in the neighborhood but I didn't want to scare anyone."  But sometimes we don't meet my villain until later in the book. we may know of him earlier but not always.

3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.

 Sorry. I fail hopelessly at this one. Most of my crimes take place after we have set up a situation, brought characters together, let the reader see them interacting and tensions building. If we start with the crime it becomes the old fashioned whodunit, when I think the sleuth's life and situation is always equally important. However, I have heard of libraries who will not shelve a book as a mystery if there is no murder in the first three chapters.

4. The crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.

 Again I disagree. Where most mysteries involve a murder, I shy away from violence on the page, and I love reading books in which the crime is a clever art theft/forgery/bank heist. It's just that that is harder to pull off. It's awfully easy to kill someone.

5. The crime should be believable.

I agree that the aim of the writer should be to create a believable universe. All the same, any series mystery requires the reader to suspend disbelief. How can so many people be killed in Cabot Cove? Or St. Mary Mead? And we know that real police procedure involves weeks of paperwork and few exciting chases. And real CSI folk are not allowed to do any detective work. We create a semblance of reality but it has to feel real. 

6. The detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

 I would choose Miss Marple over Sherlock Holmes any day, and she uses good old knowledge of human nature.  My sleuths use observation, intuition and a good sprinkling of luck--being in the right place at the right time. Personally I can't stand know it alls!

7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

 We're all capable of killing, physically. Anyone can pull a trigger, put poison in a tea cup. It's the motivation that's important. Would you or I kill if we were in a similar situation? How far must an ordinary person be pushed before he strikes back? For me we must make the villain a real person, believe in his tormented suffering/anger/jealousy so that we can see, when he is revealed, why he killed.

8. In mystery writing, don't try to fool your reader.

 Isn't that what we try to do all the time? Red herrings, clever clues, a multiple list of suspects, all of whom have a good motive for wanting the victim dead? Personally I love it when I come to the end of the book and I have been fooled--but played fair with at the same time. Don't you?

 9. Do your research.

 This is the one that I completely agree with. I have read so many books about Victorian or Edwardian England that make me cringe in the way that characters address each other, or in their lack of basic knowledge of London. If I find one thing wrong, I give up. How can I believe in the rest of the story now? I just started a book in which they say that the fall term hasn't yet started at Oxford. Sorry--it's the Michaelmas term at Oxford. How can I believe that you've been there if you don't know that?

10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.
 Of course. The plot does tend to fall flat after the murderer has been revealed, but in real life would we summon everyone in the story together, including the murderer--who might have a semi automatic weapon hidden in his socks--and say "I have brought you here to name the killer?"

So my take is--there are no rules. You play fair. You create terrific characters. You make your sleuth have a hard time, both in the case and his private life. You set the story in a real, vibrant place and time. And apart from that it's up to you. add a little romance if you want to!
So Reds and Readers--should there be rules?

Monday, April 21, 2014


RHYS BOWEN:  Last week many of us celebrated Easter or Passover (which nicely came together for once).

As usual I spent most of my Easter weekend writing poems. No, we do not have a poetry fest for Easter, nor do we serenade each other. But many years ago I started a family tradition that I have since come to regret. I hide the Easter baskets and leave a trail of clues for each child to find them--rhymed clues no less. It turns Easter baskets into a treasure hunt. I started this when my children were just able to read. They loved it, and demanded it when they were really too old to have Easter baskets at all.

Now it's been passed down to my grandchildren and since one lot of them are always with me on Easter Sunday, they look forward to finding Nana's Easter baskets. Actually it's fun to watch them cross paths with frowns on their faces, muttering "you'd use me only if you're wet and stand me up to drip, I bet."  Then shriek "The umbrella stand".

But it means that I have to come up with those cryptic clues, and not the same ones as last year. I have memories of getting up really early on Easter Sunday morning, sitting alone in the still of the house composing four sets of clues (at least five clues per child to make it a long enough trail), then creeping around and hiding all the clues in the right order before anyone awoke. And of course the first clue was left outside their door, in a note sighed The Easter Bunny.

I remember one year in particular that I finished this task and still nobody was awake, so I climbed the hill behind the house and stood in a carpet of California poppies and lupins as the sun rose over the hills. It made Easter suddenly relevant.
So I'm curious--do you have any family traditions that are unique to your family, any that you've carried on from your parents or started to be handed down to your children? I've been thinking about my family and we have several traditions of our own. At Christmas the tree mysteriously brings us an extra present at tea-time. At Thanksgiving we have a talent show and every family member has to perform. When the grandkids get together they have to play hide and seek in the dark with flashlights--something we started at Lake Tahoe when the oldest were three. We always have a picnic and family softball game for the twins birthday in July. And so on... little things that bond us more closely as family.

Reds? Any traditions you'd like to share?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I find I have to think my way around the calendar to pin down our traditions.  Thirty-plus people for dinner on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Poorly hidden Easter baskets (which became a tradition after the year the dog got into a cunningly-hidden basket and ate most of the chocolate. Picking up whichever kid is at summer camp and shopping and eating at the same places in Camden. Seeing the Portland Pops play on the Fourth of July. Our yearly trip to the amusement park on Youngest's birthday in August. Old Orchard Beach on Labor Day weekend. In the last four years, its become a pleasant fall tradition to go down to Northampton for Smith College's family weekend; we'll be continuing that for three more years at Trinity in Hartford. Listening to The Ray Coniff Singers Christmas album (that's a tradition I brought from MY childhood.) No one comes down before 8am Christmas morning (that one's become much easier to enforce since the kids hit the teen years!)
Little things: everyone has his or her Monopoly tokens, and Lord help anyone who messes that up. Saying "Welcome to Maine" and "Goodbye, Maine" when we cross the Piscataqua Bridge between our state and New Hampshire. Church on Sunday, followed by me critiquing the wedding announcements in the New York Times on the drive home. Going to the movies together.
Looking back, I realize that as a chronically lazy person, I have deliberately avoided creating elaborate traditions. I think I could always see the end game - poor Rhys getting up at the crack of dawn to write clues! I'd rather sleep in.

HALLIE EPHRON: Goodness, Julia, what lovely traditions!
Rituals in our house? Not many. Does this count: My daughters used to play Punch Buggy in the car - the first one who spotted a VW yelled it out and got to punch the other one.
And we were very serious about birthday cakes. No store-bought cakes. Had to be Duncan Hines cake mix. Homemade buttercream frosting. Birthday girl chooses the flavor got to decorate it, which required a trip to Wallgreens to buy decorating candy (usually large and miniature nonpareils). This was a big deal because we rarely had candy in the house.
We also had bedtime rituals. You had to say to my daughter, "See you in the morning, I love you, good night" and get it said back to you. Exactly like that. I was enthralled when my daughter Molly funny and heartbreaking essay about it was read on "No, You Tell It" - here's the link:,%20YOU%20Tell%20It!/tracks/103730918/Story:SeeyouinthemorningIloveyougoodnight/all-rights-reserved

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Aww. Lovely.  As kids, when the family left on a trip, the minute we turned out of the driveway, there was a race to see who could be the first one to yell: "How do you like it so far?" And when we drove under a bridge, you had to yell DUCK DOWN!
     If you were sitting in a particular chair in the living room, if you said SAVE SEAT when you got up, no one else could sit there. The rule was absolute and unbreakable--and with five kids, pretty necessary. Even our parents used it. And if you didn't, and someone sat there, and you were annoyed, the response "You didn't say SAVE SEAT"  would end the argument.
Also dibsing the wayback. If you said "I dibs the wayback" in the car, you got to sit in the cool seat facing the other way.
   Droste chocolate oranges in Christmas stockings, definitely. Oysters Rockefeller for New Years Eve. Birthday person got to choose the entire dinner, including cake, and try to convince Mom it should be birthday WEEK. (Never worked.)
   When we lost a tooth, we had a choice: "A quarter now, or a pony later." We always took the pony later.
   And now? Every time Jonathan leaves, I say--"How are you going to drive?" And he says: "Carefully."

RHYS: Hank, on car trips my kids always used to shout, "I call backety-back back"--which meant the very back of a big station wagon. No seat belts in those days.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, you are so clever! I think that should go in a Georgie book!
We're not nearly so good at our house. Maybe we need to work harder at traditions, but I'm not getting up at the crack of dawn to write rhyming clues!
We dyed eggs and hid Easter baskets (mom had to have one, too) but my daughter's grown up and there are no grandkids, so that one's in hiatus for the time being.
At Christmas, we go to my husband's family on Christmas Eve. It's a huge gathering (there are five siblings, with siblings' families,) with lots of food, and much hilarity over the Secret Santa gifts.  We still do stockings on Christmas morning at our house, even though we're all too old to believe in Santa (well, except maybe me...) This means we all put things in each others stockings, but I manage to get oranges and nuts in everyone's, a childhood tradition. I do miss the hard candies I got as a child, especially the ribbon ones. Never ate them, however. Now, it's just Rick and me and our daughter and son-in-law, but on Christmas morning we have The Tree. Kayti usually gets to be Santa, handing out gifts as we sit in front of the fire. Only one person gets to open a package at time, so everyone can see what it is. Then we go to my aunt's for Christmas dinner, except for a couple of recent years when we've been snowed in, and those were lovely Christmases.
Oh, three more Christmas things. I absolutely MUST have a real tree. Rick puts up the outside lights (he has a system.) And on Christmas Eve, I read A Child Christmas in Wales before I go to sleep. Always.

LUCY BURDETTE:  Rhys, you take the cake with those clues--though I would hardly say Julia is lazy. Writing books and raising kids and all those dinner parties? No way lazy...
Ours have to do with holidays too. I know a lot of adults have grown out of Christmas stockings, but not in our house. Here's my childhood stocking, knit by my aunt. I still trot it out for the season and it brings back a lot of happy memories. And it gets filled because everyone is trained:). A lot of other holidays are pared down to the food--no egg-dying or Easter baskets for example. But we did just finish a wonderful brunch with quiche, asparagus, salad, leek biscuits and the most amazing orange-almond sponge cake.
And birthdays--all about the cake. (Sorry Hallie, but never, never out of a box:).

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Most of our rituals have to do with holidays — collards on New Year's Eve, going to see the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, going to Providence, RI for July 4th, watching all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials.... 

One of our spring rituals, which we did last night, was watch The Wizard of Oz. Remember when it was on only once a year, in the spring? In my mind the black-and-white turning to technicolor is like winter turning into spring. And Glinda's pink puffy dress's reminiscent of apple blossoms… We saw it yesterday and tried to impress on the kiddo how special it was, but he's of the age of DVDs and on-demand and really just doesn't get it…. 

Yes, we've seen The Wizard of Oz, and now it's officially spring!

Okay folks, let's hear about your unique/funny/silly/wonderful traditions! Long may they flourish.