Monday, August 31, 2020

Writing fiction? Where to start?

HALLIE EPHRON: Last month I had the great pleasure of talking to aspiring writers about their goals and aspirations and projects underway as part of the Willamette Writers annual conference. It was a brilliantly run Zoom affair, showcasing so many features of Zoom that I’d never realized existed. (It helped that the folks in charge knew what they were about. Teamwork!)
During one of my one-on-ones, a writer who was moving from writing personal essays and nonfiction to her first fiction asked: When you’re writing fiction, how you figure out what to write about?

It’s a great question, because theoretically, once you’re unmoored from reality, you could write about virtually anything.

I shared with the writer that my books always always always start from a personal place. My first suspense standalone, NEVER TELL A LIE, grew out of my feeling isolation as I waited to go into labor with my first child. COME AND FIND ME is about a woman whose world has imploded until it’s just her and the Internet.

My advice: Write from a personal place. Get out a mirror and figure out what you love/hate/care about. That’s your starting point.

What advice would you give?

RHYS BOWEN: One thing I always say when addressing beginning writers is never to write what you think will be popular or will sell well. For one thing by the time the book is published the IN thing will no longer be in. For another you have to spend many months with those characters and in that environment. You have to love being there, to look forward to sitting down at the computer every morning. I have to be excited to see what my characters will do next or my reader won’t be excited.

I always start from something that fascinates me or has touched me emotionally in some way: stories about Tuscany in WW2 that I learned about when I was there. Questions about my spinster aunt and her time in Venice. Lady Georgie was born because I wanted to create the
most unlikely sleuth and I wanted to have fun. Molly Murphy was born from an emotional visit to Ellis Island.

You don’t feel compelled to write about something then don’t write about it!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Seconding what you and Rhys have said, Hallie. Books take a long time (I should know!) and you absolutely have to LOVE what you're writing. You write the book you want to read, not the book that someone says is trendy. 

I started my Duncan and Gemma series partly because I loved British detective novels, and partly because I was missing England dreadfully and wanted to be there in my imagination. And I think you have to figure out what matters to you emotionally, because that's how you create characters who feel genuine.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Number one--you have to care. Find out why YOU care, and then the reader will care. There’s also a blink reflex, I think, that maybe, in me, evolved from my reporting brain, that pings on “oh, that's a good story!” It’s like--if an idea is a pebble, some you toss into the pond and they sink to the bottom. Others, somehow, create ripple after widening ripple. When I test an idea in my mind, I see if it makes ripples. Or even waves. 

The First To LIe came out of what I learned emotionally going undercover as a reporter. How does it feel to be someone else--and lying as you do it? And then I realized we all do that, every day. Oooh. What might happen? (In that same book, I also had a separate good idea about structure. But that I cannot reveal.)

JENN McKINLAY: I write comedy in both mystery and romance, so I always go for the joke, the pun, the pratfall, or the shenanigans. Why? Because life is hard, tragedy abounds, and I need something to laugh at or I just don’t see the point in getting out of bed.

That being said, I find that writing fiction allows me to ponder my fellow human beings and try to figure out why they do the things they do. I can people watch all day. I find others endlessly fascinating. Whether I’m writing a story about falling in love or finding a body, I enjoy taking all of my observations and twisting them into something completely new. Where to start? For me? Usually with a joke.

HALLIE EPHRON: So it's all about following your gut, not the market. So, if you were writing a novel, where would YOU begin?

Sunday, August 30, 2020

What We're Writing: For Batter or Worse

Jenn McKinlay: My series seem to be in lock step with a wedding happening between our protagonists, Lindsey and Sully, in ONE FOR THE BOOKS,  (book 11 of the Library Lover's series)  coming out this week. Unless, of course, a murderer mucks it all they do. 

Available Sept 1st
And another wedding is happening (maybe) between the main protagonists, Mel and Joe, in my current work in progress, FOR BATTER OR WORSE, the 13th Cupcake Bakery mystery, coming out next May. 

Side note: Two things - one, this isn't the cover and, two, this will be the longest stretch of time I've had between book releases - eight months!!! - in over eleven years. Normally, I'd book a trip to a place with a beach and loll in the sun, but...2020 :(

So, here's snippet of my WIP. Be warned, we are in very rough first draft form.

Chapter One

     “Wow, I just realized you’re going to be a DeLaura and I’m not,” Angie Harper said.
     “Maybe.” Melanie Cooper opened the door for her friend as they exited their co-owned bakery, Fairy Tale Cupcakes, and walked to Mel’s car.
     Well, Mel walked, Angie waddled. At thirty-two weeks pregnant and being slight in stature, Angie carried her baby high and tight, looking like she’d strapped a basketball to her midsection.
     “You’re not going to take the DeLaura family name?” Angie asked. She sounded shocked. Mel was marrying Angie’s older brother Joe DeLaura, who was smack in the middle of her seven older brothers.
     “I haven’t decided,” Mel said. “We’re a few weeks out yet, so I have time.”
     “Not if the brothers find out,” Angie said. “You know they’ll have something to say about it. What about Joe, what does he think?”
     “He said I can do whatever I want,” Mel said.
     “Good,” Angie said.
     “What made you decide to take Tate’s name?” Mel asked. She was genuinely curious as to why her normally independent minded friend had gone traditional on the name thing.
     Angie hugged her belly. “I surprised myself with that one, too, but I wanted to become part of something new. Also, Tate offered to become a DeLaura so I felt like if it wasn’t a big deal for him, it didn’t need to be one for me. Also, there are enough DeLauras already, besides, we’ve agreed that all of our kids will have DeLaura as a middle name, so that was enough for me.”    
     “I imagine Joe and I will come up with something similar,” Mel said. She opened the passenger side door so Angie could slide into the front seat. “Maybe we—”
     “Haven’t you had that baby yet, Harper?”
     Uh oh. Mel glanced up and saw Olivia Puckett bearing down on them with her usual no nonsense stride. A rival bakery owner, Olivia, always wore a blue chef’s coat and contained her curly gray hair in an unruly topknot. She was not known for her tact or her diplomacy and when she and Angie bumped into each other it was usually with the force of two similarly charged magnets. They repelled each other.
     “Not yet,” Angie replied. She smiled at Olivia. “And how are you today?”
     Olivia stumbled. She blinked. She frowned. “You look like you’re having twins.”
     Mel hissed a breath. Didn’t Olivia know not to comment on a pregnant woman’s belly? This was going to get ugly. She glanced around the street, looking for help. There was no one. It was still early in the day for any tourists to be roaming Old Town Scottsdale. She reached for the phone in her purse. Marty Zelaznik, their main employee, was actually dating Olivia and Mel figured it was his responsibility to rein her in. Not that Mel was afraid of Olivia. She glanced at the other woman’s muscled forearms. Okay, she was a little afraid.
     “Not twins,” Angie said. She continued smiling and shrugged. “Just a big, bouncing healthy baby.”
     Mel gave her side eye. Was Angie okay? Had she spiked a fever? Usually, about now, the insults would be volleying back and forth between these women like a badminton birdie. Mel glanced at her friend’s eyes. Were her pupils dilated?
     Olivia’s mouth twisted up as tight as her topknot. “Well, you should be grateful. Elephants gestate for twenty-three months.”
     “Twenty-two months, actually,” Angie said. Then she leaned in and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have shared that factoid with me.”
    “Yeah, well…” Olivia looked flummoxed. “It’s almost two years.”
    “Crazy, right?” Angie shook her head in wonder.
     Olivia turned to Mel. “What’s wrong with her?”
     Mel shrugged. “Search me.”
     Angie reached over and patted Olivia’s arm. “Have I ever told you how flattering that shade of blue is on you? You’re really very pretty, you know.”
     Olivia started to back away. She glanced at Mel with wide eyes. “You should take her to the emergency room.”
     Then she hurried down the sidewalk as if she was afraid that Angie’s sudden bout of niceness might be contagious. As soon as she was out of earshot, Mel burst out laughing. She turned to Angie and asked, “Is that your new way to drive her bananas?”
     Angie looked puzzled. “I have no idea what you mean. I adore Olivia.”
     With that, she slid into the passenger seat, moving her legs so that Mel could shut the door after her. They were on their way to visit their former employee and friend Oscar Ruiz, known to all as Oz, at the Sun Dial Resort where he was the master pastry chef. Mel and Joe were having their small wedding reception there, and Oz was baking the cupcakes, naturally, but now she wondered if perhaps Olivia wasn’t right. Maybe she should take Angie to see her obstetrician on the way. Of all the symptoms she’d read about pregnancy, a personality transplant wasn’t one of them.  
     Mel circled the car and got into the driver’s seat. She glanced at Angie and said, “Feeling dehydrated at all?”
     “No, I had a huge glass of water before we left the bakery.”
     “And you’ve been taking your vitamins.”
     Angie glanced at her as Mel started the car and left her parking spot to merge onto the street.
     “What?” Angie asked.
     “Nope, I know you like I know my own eyebrows,” Angie said. “That “huh” wasn’t nothing.”
     “I’m just surprised, that’s all,” Mel said.
     “Surprised by what?”
     “Your reaction to Olivia,” Mel said. “You know she was trying to insult you.”
     Angie shrugged. She hugged her belly and said, “Whatever. I don’t have time for that. Besides, I don’t want to injure the baby’s psyche by thinking bad thoughts.”
     “Is that possible?” Mel asked. This was a level of motherhood she wasn’t sure she could handle.
     “I don’t want to take any chances,” Angie said. “You know, some people say I have a temper.”
     “Really?” Mel asked. She wondered if she managed to feign surprise successfully. “You don’t say.”
     “I know, shocked me, too,” Angie said. “But I’ve read every pregnancy book out there and I just don’t want to goof this up, so I’ve been doing a lot of meditation over the passed few weeks and really trying to find my mama Zen.”
     Mel paused at a red light and turned to look at her friend. Angie had her long dark curls held in a band at the nape of her neck. Her maternity dress was a loosely fitting swing dress in a pretty shade of pink. She looked about as angelic as Mel had ever seen her. She reached across the console and squeezed Angie’s hand.
     “That is one lucky baby to have you for a mom,” she said.
     In an instant Angie’s eyes filled with tears and she gulped. “You think so? I just want to be the best mom ever.”
     “You’ve got this,” Mel said. “No doubt.”
     She handed Angie a tissue from the pack in the glove box and Angie blew her nose. It sounded like someone stepped on a goose. Mel turned her head to hide her smile. At least, that hadn’t changed.
     “All right, enough sentiment,” Angie said. She waved her tissue at the window. “Aren’t there cupcakes waiting for us? Onward!”
     Relieved Mel put the Mini Cooper in gear and headed for the resort.

As you can see, there's more than just a wedding happening here. A baby is soon to appear as well. So, Reds and Readers, how do you feel when a long running series has protagonists getting married, having kids, doing all that life stuff? Are you invested and care or would you rather they just bring on the murder mystery already? 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

What We're Writing Week: Threading the Needle on Difficult Subjects

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I knew for a long time that Book No. 10 (working title AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY) would have a conflict between the protagonists of my series – plus a few newcomers – and white supremacists. I follow the news closely, and white supremacists have been the number one domestic terror threat for over a decade. Whether they go by the traditional name, Nazis, or dress themselves up as the “alt-right,” they're a dangerous crew, and as a plot driver, they have two things I look for: the potential for a LOT of conflict, and an issue that's plausible for a rural area in upstate New York.

What I didn't expect was that the issue would be so timely. Every time I do more online research on the various ways white supremacists find each other and organize, or on their malignant beliefs, or on the ways violence against women is intertwined with “white pride”/Christian dominionism/mens rights advocacy, I wonder which FBI agent is adding pages to my file.

I find myself repeatedly running up against two challenges while working on this book. The first is: how much info do I give about the ways the alt-right lures disaffected young (mostly) men (mostly) without creating a road map for someone reading the completed novel? Just as no mystery writer wants to give the exact composition and dose that would enable readers to poison their, ah, loved ones, and no thriller author wants to tell the audience precisely how to construct an explosive out of commonly-available materials, I have no desire to give any potentially curious alt-folks a handy users guide to finding their local chapter of Nazis-R-Us.

Secondly: how to I ensure the “bad guys” are authentic, rounded, three dimensional human beings without apologizing for or glossing over their vile beliefs? It's a different thing from making sure my previous villains are recognizably human. A man who sells drugs might love his kids, and someone who kills to keep his business afloat might do it out of understandable desperation. But it's hard to thread that needle when your talking about, you know, Nazis.

Anyhoo. Here's an excerpt from a little further along in the first chapter/prologue, this beginning of which you can read here. One of the men on the White Supremacy float has unveiled a nasty banner, enraging Ron Tucker, one of the guests at the party. He flings himself at the offending sheet (and the man displaying it,) Russ races out to stop the fist fight, and the whole melee, boxed between floats before and behind, careens down the road at a walking pace.

Clare turned and faced her conscripts. “Okay, you two. Get up to the cab and see if you can stabilize that steering wheel.”

Bill looked at the melee with dismay. “What if the driver tries to hit us?”

Hit him back, she didn't say. “Tell him you're trying to help him.”

He's a Nazi!” Terry protested.

Then tell him Russ is trying to help him! Go! Now!” Whipped by her command voice, they ran toward the tractor. Clare could hear the whoop-whoop of a squad car signalling pedestrians out of its way, but she couldn't make out its light bar in the blaze and glitter of the floats behind her. Should she help Russ? No, another body would just increase the chance of an accident. Terry and Bill were hanging off the sides of the tractor now, reaching inside, hopefully, dear God, about to straighten its trajectory.

In the middle of the carnival of light and dark and movement, her eye was caught by one still figure. A woman with a large white candy bucket had stopped, staring, as her float arced past, riveted in place by the sight of the men tussling on the back of the tractor. Maybe, like Clare, she was concerned for her husband.

Clare ran toward her. The woman, startled, whirled and raised her bucket – whether an offense or a defense, Clare couldn't tell, but she stopped short and spread her open hands. “I'm not here to hurt you.” She gestured up the road, where the siren's sound was more pronounced. “The police are going to be here very soon. If we can stop this fight now, nobody needs to get arrested. Is that your husband?” They both looked at the back of the float. The man in question managed to shove Ron Tucker out of striking distance, but the mechanic wound his fists in the sheet and wrenched it away, flinging it onto the pavement.

“Oh, no!” the woman said. She lurched toward the fallen banner.

“Leave it.” Clare grabbed the woman's coat. “The police are going to confiscate it anyway.”

“They can't do that! We have a right to be heard! We have a first amendment right!”

Look at me.” Clare pointed to her eyes. “Look at me! You don't have a first amendment right to brawl, and the cops aren't going to care who threw the first punch. My husband is trying to stop it.” She pointed to where Russ clawed at Tucker's jacket. The banner carrier, now deprived of his prize, was in it with two hands, trading blow for blow with the mechanic. “We need to stop it.”


Clare hadn't realized how keyed up she was until she felt a downbeat of relief at the woman's question. “If your husband jumps off the float, it'll give mine the chance to grab his assailant.” The woman looked blank. “The other guy.”

JULIA: I'm sure you've read many other books that deal with difficult issues, dear readers. Can you think of novels or movies where it's been handled especially well? And - not that we're going to name names - can you think of cases where the writer(s) got it wrong?

Friday, August 28, 2020

What We're Writing--Debs Does Geography

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Having been tortured all week by visions of glorious Cornwall, Venice, and Scotland, I thought I'd take you to...rainy London on a dark November evening. (What was I thinking when I chose this setting??) Instead of looking at gorgeous photos of Scottish moors, I've been pouring over Google Maps.

I have an ongoing "discussion" with my wonderful editor about including descriptions of how my characters get from one place to another in my scenes. She says "Cut it out with the sat-nav!" (Although a little less politely than that!) But I like to feel the location, to know how places relate to each other, to sense the transition between them. In this little snippet from Kincaid/James #19, Kincaid is going from Holborn Police Station in Bloomsbury, central London, to Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill.  And we get a glimpse of a new character, Detective Constable Lucy McGillivray (the hardest name to type, ever...)

“Where are you from, Constable?” Kincaid asked McGillivray as the car sped north and then west through the wet streets.
“Perthshire, sir.” She pronounced it “Pairth-shire,” with a roll of the first R.  But we moved here when I was fifteen, so I’ve considered myself a Londoner for a good while now. I did my training here as well.”
“Have you had much experience with death notifications?”
“I did my share in uniform, sir, accidents and sudden deaths, but this will be my first in a murder case.”
“Well, much the same, I’m afraid, except that we have to ask questions afterwards.” Kincaid had never become inured to it, and he lapsed into silence, the acrid coffee he’d drunk at the station churning in his gut now. There was, he thought, no worse task than breaking the news to a parent of the death of a child.
His mind wandered back over the details of the evening. Had Sasha Johnson, junior doctor, simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time? But his gut told him no. Random attacks were usually more frenzied, and this had seemed calculated in its ferocity. One blow. Who had the expertise for that? Or had the killer merely been lucky?
He shook himself back to the present. They were entering the Harrow Road now. Soon they would reach the eastern fringes of Notting Hill. The road was lined with a comfortable mix of shops and flats, most of the buildings only three stories high. When they turned left into Elgin Road, he pulled up a map on his mobile phone and asked the driver to slow. Leaning forwards, he said, “It looks like it’s across from the Union Tavern. See if you can pull into Woodfield Road, and we’ll cross back over.” There were double yellows either side of Elgin Road, so no place for the car to stop directly in front of the Johnsons’ building. He was glad the rain had let up a bit.
Although he knew the area relatively well, he was still surprised when he caught his first glimpse of the flats where Sasha Johnson’s parents lived. The three-story block fit snugly into the angle where the road met the Grand Union Canal. The arrow-shaped roof sat atop the building like an over-sized white cap, the triangle’s apex pointing at the pub across the road. The walls of the structure were curved to fit into the angle as well, and the rear of the building was an odd bulbous shape. 

“What a strange building,” said McGillivray. “The rooms will be awkward. Nice views of the canal, though.”
The Grand Union Canal curved gently through this part of London, passing Kensal Green Cemetery and the northern edge of Notting Hill, until it reached this part of Westbourne Grove, where it flirted with the Westway before becoming the Regent’s Canal. The fortunate inhabitants of the flats with canal views would look out at colorful narrowboats moored below.
When their driver had indeed found a place to stop the car in Woodfield Road, Kincaid asked him to wait as he and McGillivray got out. The pub was still open, so it had not yet gone eleven. Kincaid hoped that the Johnsons would be up. Light spilled from the pub, and a glimpse in the windows revealed a cheerful interior, the tables still packed with diners and drinkers. He and Gemma had brought the children here back in the summer, for a Sunday lunch on the pub’s long terrace overlooking the canal. 

No one but the most inveterate smokers would be sitting out there tonight, he thought as he turned up his collar against the persistent drizzle.
Followed by McGillivray, Kincaid crossed the road on a break in the traffic and opened the wrought-iron gate set into the wall surrounding the flats. The tiny courtyard was neat, with a few potted shrubs and a couple of chained bicycles. The building’s main door was well lit and, after searching for the flat number in the labeled buttons, he pressed the buzzer.

 The building is real, as is the pub, the very welcoming Union Tavern, which I discovered quite by accident on one of my rambles through London last November. I'd started walking east from Portobello Road as it grew dark, and I wandered happily for a couple of hours. But eventually I realized that I was damp and cold and hungry--and that I had no idea where I was. When I saw the pub in the distance I was so relieved. (London pubs are ports in the storm--with bathrooms.) Then I realized I had been walking adjacent to the canal, and when I saw this wonderful building I knew it had to go in the book somewhere.

Now, even though I can't travel, and am missing what I thought would be my last research/writing trip for this book, I'm loving being there in my my imagination. With maps.

So, REDS and readers, do you like following along with the locations in a book? And do you prefer real maps to GPS? (I LOVE maps, although I was certainly thankful for the GPS that led me to the Union Tavern!)