Saturday, October 31, 2020

As if we needed another excuse to wear masks and binge on candy...

HALLIE EPHRON: Happy Halloween, everyone! And Oh my, what a strange one it's going to be. I keep hearing those melancholy opening lines of LITTLE WOMEN:
“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Only this year it'll be Halloween. And Thanksgiving. And Christmas that won't be the same without friends and family.

But driving through my neighborhood, from outward appearances you wouldn't know anything is off this year. Here's my next-door neighbor's house with dancing skeleton lights.

And my across-the-street neighbor's house with dried cornstalks:

And my at-the-corner neighbor's spectre-covered porch:

My grandkids will be dressing up and celebrating in the courtyard of their apartment building. They're hoping their neighborss will toss candy from their windows. If that happens, I hope the kids will be wearing hard hats.

Here's their get-ups from last year.

This year's superhero costumes should be nurses and postal workers. According to a piece in the New York Times, a popular costume this year is to go as an empty roll of toilet paper. Seems appropriate.

At our house, we'll have to make due with memories from Halloween's past. My husband's amazing carved pumpkins:

How's Halloween in your neck of the woods? Did you decorate? Stock up on candy, "just in case"? Carve a pumpkin?

Whatever you do, please mask up! Play it safe and stay well.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Marko and Me - Otho Eskin reflects on his character...

ANNOUNCING THE WINNER of Barbara Ross's JANE DARROWFIELD AND THE MAD WOMAN NEXT DOOR: Congratulations Kathy Reel! Kathy, email Barbara at to collect your prize.

 HALLIE EPHRON: Otho Eskin, author of THE REFLECTING POOL, brings to his thriller past experience an attorney, a diplomat, as well as serving in the US Army and in the US Foreign Service in Washington and around the world.

Like the rest of us, right now he's grounded, but his new book takes readers to the places he's been, telling a tale of international intrigue with stakes that couldn't be higher.

I'm happy to welcome and the protagonist if his two thrillers, Marko Zorn, to to Jungle Red!

OTHO ESKIN: Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to travel widely but due to the pandemic, recently I've become an armchair traveler. Now I spend my time writing, an activity I love, and I especially enjoy the company of Marko Zorn, the protagonist of my two thrillers (The Reflecting Pool and Headshot). Marko Zorn is a top Washington, DC
homicide detective with expensive tastes in classic cars, art, and the company of beautiful women, that far exceed his cop’s salary. He must take on extra work that is not always strictly legal and is usually dangerous in order to supplement his income. This requires his special combination of skill and steel nerves. 

I get a vicarious pleasure from his adventures— activities that, in reality, I would not be able to manage myself.

Washington DC, my home for more than 50 years, seemed the perfect place for Marko Zorn’s adventures. It’s a city I know well, both the familiar DC federal buildings, monuments and museums but also the criminal side of the city. Some of the book’s most important scenes take place in its well-known public landmarks, such as the White House.

The body of a young secret service agent is found in The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Marko investigates her death and this puts his life at risk.

Marko also knows the side of Washington of gangs, drugs, murder and violence. Motivated by revenge, greed and a lust for power, individuals from every strata of Washington society, from drug dealers to the top reaches of Government, commit crimes that Marko must solve.

Readers have asked me where I came up with the character of Marko Zorn. A central purpose in writing The Reflecting Pool was to create an interesting character who is different—an unconventional and original cop. Some of the things he does are close to being illegal but he has a strong moral sense and never does anything that violates his moral standards. Marko does not believe in rules or authority. He is a totally cool character, and is never rattled. 

That’s not true for me. If I were confronted by someone with a gun or in a very dangerous situation I’m pretty sure I would panic.

When I retired from my career in the Foreign Service, I had no plans to write novels. I turned my energies first to writing plays, many of which have been performed in professional theaters in DC, NY and abroad. Finally, I decided I wanted to write thrillers.

In a sense, my career, first as an attorney, then as a diplomat and then as a playwright, gave me the background for thriller writing.

During my the three years posted at the US Embassy in East Berlin during the cold war, I witnessed intrigue and the abuse of power. During my time there, I was listed as a CIA spy in a directory issued by the German secret police (the Stasi) and I certainly wasn’t a spy. This was disinformation intended to compromise my work and that of other Foreign Service officers who were also included in the directory.

Political corruption has always repelled me, but it makes for exciting reading in a work of fiction so I have used it in The Reflecting Pool as part of the intersecting plots that put Marko’s life at risk.

When I developed Marko’s character, I was influenced to some degree by my favorite British mystery and espionage novels such as John Le Carré’s spy novels featuring George Smiley. Smiley is a career intelligence officer with the British overseas intelligence Service. An undistinguished looking person, he blends in and does not attract attention. He doesn’t do thrilling, violent acts and he doesn’t carry a gun. When confronted by traitors and vicious opponents, he is able to defeat them by cunning.

Marko has these same skills. He also doesn’t carry a gun and he outsmarts the villains through his superior brain power. But Marko has some distinctive traits that are different from George Smiley. He is brash and can be offensive if irritated. He is not afraid of violence and tries to avoid it. But when violent action is required he can be exceptionally aggressive in ingenious ways sometimes causing the violent deaths of his opponents.

Although he is adept at navigating the corridors of law enforcement and the criminal world, he'd prefer to stay home and watch old movies, enjoy his art collection, and listen to cool jazz. I can certainly relate to these interests. Marko likes designer clothes and wears a Brioni tuxedo in an important scene in The Reflecting Pool. I used to wear tuxedos to embassy receptions but now prefer jeans. I’ve been told I have a good sense of humor, but Marko’s is more sardonic and often gets him into trouble.

Marko Zorn and I are both fans of classic roadsters. He drives a Jaguar in racing green and, for a while, I drove a classic silver 1971 Mercedes Benz convertible. I don’t drive the Mercedes anymore but I miss it. Marko is also a passionate art collector but must keep his works of art in a special room in his house where outsiders can't view them because they would know he has an income that far exceeds a cop’s salary. I am also a fan of art but I let Marko buy expensive pieces than I could never afford.

While Marko and I may have similar hobbies, the similarities stop there. As they say, opposites attract.

When my children read my book, they told me they can hear my voice in the dialogue. Marko comes alive through the vicarious adventures of my mind. He does things I would never dream of doing in real life. Despite our differences I find him very relatable. I understand him and root for almost everything he does though I don’t always approve of how he does it. And there is no limit to what he can do in my imagination.

HALLIE: Reading Otho talk about Marko, I have to say I'm thinking more of James Bond than John Le Carr
é's George Smiley. But since we're talking spy novels today with a man who may (or may not!) have been one, what other fictional spy characters have you cherished over the years, and is there anything you've always wanted to know about spycraft?

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Covid agitas invades our dreams

HALLIE EPHRON: Normally at this time of year I’d be zipping in and out of airports and giving workshops and talks at conferences. Willamette, Surrey, Writers Digest, Crime Bake, Bouchercon, the Piper Center at ASU, and more. My recurrent nightmare has been that I can’t find my car. I parked it… somewhere… and I’m going to be late wherever it is that I’m going.

Now I keep dreaming that I can’t find what I need in the supermarket. The whole middle of the store has gone missing and been replaced by aisles of luggage and small appliances and who knows what all stuff that I do not need.

No more dreams about lost cars. Not surprising because the only place I’m going these days is… the supermarket. In at 6:30 AM and out as fast as I can.

Meanwhile, my Stop ‘n’ Shop has taken it upon itself to completely reorganize in the store. Last time I was in there, celery, mushrooms, broccoli, scallions and cauliflower were MIA. Butter and coffee have moved halfway across the store. There's no longer a "health foods" section."

It’s as if they threw the entire store up in the air and put everything down somewhere new. Gradually. Over the course of 3 months. It takes triple time to shop.

And they're still at it. Here's what was going on in the meat department at 7 AM this morning.

In my nightmare, I dreamed that I marched up to the customer service desk and chewed out the cashier. (Something which I would never do. I adore the staff at my local Stop ‘n’ Shop.) My husband woke me up because I was shouting.

When I realized what I’d been dreaming, I cracked up laughing. So absurd. But really, my path through the supermarket is one of precious few things that were predictable in an otherwise-gone-bonkers world.

Have your dreams changed since Covid? Are new everyday challenges giving you agitas these days?

LUCY BURDETTE: I haven’t noticed the dreams so much, but waking hours definitely are affected.

We have decided to head south--we have a careful plan about staying with relatives who have bedrooms in their basement and will accept cats and puppies. And I’m planning all our road food.

But John has banned me from buying any more masks. My latest are from Everbrand. They fit really well and don’t fog up my glasses and have some kind of silver treatment on them that’s supposed to kill viruses. (Who knows right?)

So that’s how I’m channeling my anxiety--about everything!

My dreams have not become disturbing on the whole but very vivid and complicated. The only worrying feature is
that I dream we are keeping a lion or tiger as a pet I’m not happy about it as I realize the danger.

Having studied dream psychology at university I interpret this as having something that could be dangerous in my house with me— the virus. We don’t know where it is so we don’t feel safe.

Oh, and I realize that I am on a lot of trains, a mode of transport that I rarely use. Is my brain saying that flying is unsafe? Am i trying to get somewhere where I’ll be safe?

JENN McKINLAY: I don’t dream. I also don’t sleep. A good night’s rest for me, is five to six hours uninterrupted, but with teenagers and pets that rarely happens. I think that I’m so exhausted by the time I go to bed I’m too weary to remember anything my unconscious is throwing at me, which during these very trying days is probably a blessing.

Oh, I have been having terrible dreams. Not every night, but some nights. My dreams are insidious, in that they always start out like very normal life, everyone doing something that they'd ordinarily be doing, and then at some point there's something off--WAIT, I used to know where the door was, or did they change the time of this event, or why can't I find the right building, or what happened to my suitcase, or where did all my clothes go? they used to be in the closet RIGHT HERE and why why why didn't I plan for whatever it is?

I'm always trying to fix things, and as soon as I figure something out, something else goes wrong.

Recently, there's been a scary black-dressed thing
--and I don't mean a person exactly, just a scary thing--at the end of our driveway, which is scaring me just to think about it. I suppose THAT representation is pretty obvious, right? Not so tough to interpret.

And hey, by the way, brain, I don't need dreams to tell me it's scary out there.

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  I've been having very vivid and disrupted dreams, too, and a lot of them seem to be about looking for things. In one the other night, I was going through drawers, and in one of them was a very silky black cat, with bright green eyes. Not a stuffed cat, either, a real live cat! In my dream I could feel the texture of its fur. So weird.

I don't have a superstitious thing about black cats, having had several over the years, but it was just...weird.

My Covid agitas is more evident in the daytime, with horrible problems concentrating, and I keep feeling like I have to remind myself to breathe. A walk helps.

HALLIE: Has covid invaded your dreamscape? Please, tell us about it...

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Digital Gaslighting and a #giveaway from Barbara Ross

I'm always thrilled when Barbara Ross comes on to talk about a new book, and I'm especially fond of her new Jane Darrowfield "Professional Busybody" series. And today she's giving away a copy of the new book in the series, Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door. I crack up just reading the title, and I'm dying to know where she got the idea for this new book. 

BARBARA ROSS: Sometimes you know the exact moment that sparked the idea for a book. That’s the case for my new mystery, Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door.

Last spring when I was in Milwaukee for a conference, I visited my high school friends Amy and Tom Fritz. Appropo of I- don’t-remember-what (mystery writing I’m sure but beyond that…), Tom mentioned a relatively new phenomenon of abusers torturing their exes using their home security systems. If the person no longer in the home keeps the phone app and codes for the security system, from the other side of town he (it’s almost always a he) can turn off the heat or raise it to the max, blast music, turn lights on and off, open and close the garage door, even change the entry code every time the victim goes out.

“It can happen when one person becomes an expert in the home security system, and the
other person, the victim, has never paid much attention to it,” Tom said.

That struck me like blow. That is me. Not the victim of an abusing ex, thank goodness. But the partner in a relationship who understands next to nothing about the home security system.

There was a system in place when we moved into our current house. The previous owners had multiple homes and were rarely in residence. I thought the security system was over-the-top for what we needed. In addition to door alarms and window alarms, there were motion sensors we could set for the whole house when we were out, or for other floors when we were sleeping.

Nonetheless, we extended the system to add a doorbell and a doorbell camera because a) my study is on the fourth floor and I got tired of running to the first to answer the door for people I didn’t want to speak to in the first place, b) until then the only thing that rang when the doorbell was pressed was a princess phone on the third floor that had no other function in our landlineless house and couldn’t be heard from any other location. My husband also added cameras to our roof decks so he could monitor the snow buildup when we were away.

My husband figured everything out and dealt with the security company. I learned the codes to get into the garage and the house and that was it. Our marriage is like that. When one person takes responsibility for a thing, the other one pretty much leaves them to it.

Which means I am one of those people who could be tortured by their home security system. If I walked into a room in my house at night and alarms started going off around me, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.

Once I knew what I wanted to write about, I started doing research. At first, I wasn’t even sure what to call this type of harassment. There’s lots written about cyberbullying and cyberstalking, which take place entirely online, or doxing in which sensitive personal real-world information is exposed online. But what was this? Once I found the words cyber gaslighting and digital gaslighting the articles flowed, each one more horrifying than the next.

The term gaslighting comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, and subsequent 1940 and 1944 movies. The plot in each varies slightly but the theme is the same: a husband socially isolates his wife and works to convince her that what she is seeing, hearing and experiencing isn’t real, causing her, and others, to question her sanity. The story is set in 1880s London and a key feature is the dimming of the gaslights in the couple’s home. (I write about seeing the 1944 movie in Key West on the edge of the pandemic here.)

Gaslights were the technology of the 1880s. Smart homes and the “internet of things” are the technology of today. The common thread in the original movie and Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door is that in each, the victim’s home, the place where she should feel safest in the world, is used as a weapon against her.

That sense of unease occurs in the first scene in Madwoman, when Jane’s neighbor approaches her and begs, “I want you to figure out if I’m crazy.”movies.

Readers: What do you think about security systems and the “internet of things?” Are you participating in that universe or staying away from it?

Comment below to be entered to win a copy of Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door. Jane Darrowfield and the Madwoman Next Door was released on October 27, exclusively in paper and exclusively from Barnes & Noble for one year. The first book in the series, Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody is available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats from all retailers. You can find out more about it here.

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Barbara’s Maine Clambake novellas are included along with stories by Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis in holiday anthologies from Kensington Publishing. Barbara and her husband live in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Celebrating Book Groups and A DEADLY FEAST in Paperback @LucyBurdette

The paperback version of the ninth Key West food critic mystery, A DEADLY FEAST, is on sale today! I thought we might celebrate by chatting about book groups. There are lots of high points in a writer’s life (selling a book, finishing a book, seeing the book in the world for the first time, etc), but nothing better than talking about the book with a book group or club or library or bookstore. In fact, nothing better than talking about any book I've loved with friends who've also read it.

Up into her mid-nineties, my mother-in-law was in a Very Serious Book Group. When it was her turn to lead the discussion, she studied very hard in advance to find out about the author and prepare discussion questions. She would get nervous about whether she'd sound smart enough, and would canvass her daughters and daughters-in-law for input. It was so cute! (By the way, I couldn't find a photo of her with her books, but this was Dorothy voting at age 100!)

I'm not in a regular book group right now, though I did participate this year in a zoom group discussing Ibram X. Kendi's STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, about the history of racism in America. Wow, that was some very serious reading and heavy discussion, and I was glad to have had that opportunity. I honestly had no idea how uneducated I was on this subject. 

Some years ago, I was in a book group with some local Connecticut friends. Until it got to be too much work, each hostess would make dinner--and of course those food memories are my strongest! I remember cooking for our discussion of WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA, Carlos Eire's beautiful memoir about growing up in and then fleeing from Cuba. I know I made a Cuban pork roast and roasted bananas and black beans. If I was cooking today, I would serve a mojito cake for dessert.

And we had a wonderful book discussion here on the blog of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, led by our friend Kristopher Zgorski. Kristopher supplied us with questions, and music! (Say, we should do another one of those...)

One of the most fun book group events I've heard about was from one of my fans who talked her group into discussing AN APPETITE FOR MURDER over dinner. She served Key West chicken, Caribbean rice, the recipe for leaning tower of eggplant from the back of my book, and key lime pie of course! I called in to chat with them and she sent me photos of the food and decorations. 

I will end this post by supplying questions for discussing A DEADLY FEAST since it's now out in paperback, but I'd really love to hear about your book club experiences. How do you choose the reading? Who leads the discussion? Is food or wine served? Should Jungle Red Writers have another book discussion?

In A DEADLY FEAST, Key Zest food critic Hayley Snow is set to be married to her heartthrob detective Nathan Bransford. But she has a lot of worries because Nathan’s been married before and both sets of parents were married and then divorced. So she talks a lot to her friends and family about their experiences with marriage. So I've included lots of questions about fictional weddings and marriage...and below that, a group of non-wedding questions!

What’s your theory about what makes for a good marriage? 

Does it seem to you that Nathan and Hayley are a good match? Why or why not?

When you’re reading about a fictional wedding, how much do you like to hear about wedding plans and details?

What are your favorite examples of fictional weddings, either books or movies? Explain why you chose them.

And for some non-wedding questions:

Have you ever gone on a food tour? If so where? If not yet, where would you love to eat your way around?

Martha Hubbard talks about chefs feeling possessive about the recipes they make and serve—they don’t want diners making substitutions. How do you feel about that?

How do you feel about Hayley’s relationship with her mother? And compare this to her relationship with Miss Gloria and Allison, her stepmother. 

Hayley’s boss Palamina says she never understood why Hayley was living with a senior citizen, until she met Miss Gloria. How do you feel about this character? Does she accurately reflect seniors?

And in case you missed it, DEATH ON THE MENU ebooks are on sale for $1.99 for a limited time only!

Monday, October 26, 2020

How's your acronym IQ?

HALLIE EPHRON: I recently posted on Facebook a snapshot of part of a Walgreens ad emblazoned with BOGO. It was only when I read the trailing words, “...50% off,” that I realized BOGO is an acronym.

I posted the snapshot and wrote, “Duh... and all this time I thought BOGO was a brand name.” 

Turns out I’m not alone. The post generated a ton of comments. 

From my friend Patty Jo: “Me, too! Double DUH!” From Edith Maxwell, “I still don’t know what it is!” From our own “Oh, Kaye” (Kaye Wilkinson Barley): “I can tell you guys were not raised by my momma!” 

 My favorite comment came from Margaret Park Bridges, a talented children’s and mystery author who used to be local and has sadly moved away and works for a high tech company (which shall not be named): “This discussion is so funny to me. Having a job for the past year working with almost exclusively Millennials, I have had to learn a million acronyms just to keep up. OG, YOLO, ICYMI, JK, FOMO, BAE, FWIW...!! I may be the hippest 60-something-year-old I know.” 

 I think I know OG and and FWIW. The others? No clue. 

 So how’s your acronym IQ? Been stumped by any lately? 

JENN McKINLAY: I did know BOGO but only because some helpful store put the definition below their ad a few years ago. The Hooligans are 18 and 19, consequently my vibe is so dope, I’m practically lit (at which point, there is an eye roll and a Hooligan says “Lit is so 2017, Mom.”) 

LOL - I know y’all know that one. 

I’m hip to yours, Hallie - You Only Live Once, Fear of Missing Out, etc. and here’s some new ones - T (gossip), TBH (to be honest) - although, nothing good ever follows that one. And then, of course, there’s GOAT (greatest of all time). 

You don’t want to know how confused I was when the dudes kept calling Tom Brady a goat. mean, I’m “dying”. I’m “dead” (the new slang for LOL). 

RHYS BOWEN: it took me two years to know what POTUS meant! And FLOTUS sounds like something disgusting going down a river. I’ve managed to master BFF, IMHO and even WTF. ( which will not be explained here). 

Are you really concerned that language is going backward to caveman grunts? Writing to hieroglyphics? 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I don’t think it’s that new, Rhys - the Romans invented SPQR, after all! 

I use a few acronyms in my conversation (“BTdubs” is a favorite) but I confess, despite having a just-turned 20 year old, I’m still stumped by some of the acronyms I see. I think Twitter has spread them even more than emails had previously, since YKINYK and IIRC take up a lot fewer letters than “Your Kink is not My Kink” (formerly known as chacun son goût) and If I Recall Correctly. 

Fortunately, for all of those well above the age of hipness, there’s the Urban Dictionary, which is a wonderful resource for all sorts of acronyms and expressions. Be forewarned - if you’re faint of heart, the Urban Dictionary is exceedingly blunt. 

 And my mother and Kaye’s must have been soul sisters, because my mom’s favorite phrase in the world, after “70% off clearance,” was BOGOF. 

HANK PHILLPPI RYAN: I love to guess them, KWIM? 

What’s fascinating is that IRL, they are all only used on social media. We never say them out loud, except for LOL. It’s only on line. Amirite? It’s kinda efficient. 

But it’s a new language, for certain places only. I just google them, and don’t worry about it. I know other stuff. (I did have to look up ICYMI.) 

LUCY BURDETTE: I agree so strongly on FLOTUS Rhys--it’s a disgusting nickname and probably why I discouraged John from running for prez LOL. 

If I need a word for a character I’m writing, I definitely turn to Jenn. I had some 20-somethings look at the boat next to Miss Gloria’s in DEATH ON THE MENU, and she advised me to have them saying the houseboat was “lit,” which was cutting edge at the time. 

Funny I thought your boys calling Tom Brady GOAT meant he was an old goat, which face it, he probably is:). 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Help! It's Urban Dictionary for me. Although I've had to explain BOGO to my hubby.. I spend all my time trying to be current on British slang. But as I have a teenager in my books, I'd better upgrade my acronyms! (And I agree, FLOTUS is disgusting. And POTUS is pretty bad, too.) 

HALLIE: Yes, I agree, anything ending in OTUS should be abandoned.

So what about the rest of you? Are you double-duhing along with Patty Jo or rolling your eyes at our collective cluelessness? I'll be a lot of those young farts don't know this one: TK. It's what writers put in our manuscripts when we haven't clue what to say.  

Sunday, October 25, 2020

What We're Writing...Jenn McKinlay

 Jenn McKinlay: First, let me tell you the winner of Leslie Budewitz's Solace - commenter Pat D! Congratulations, Pat! 

You can reach Leslie here: leslie at drbeans dot come to let her know if you'd like the book or audio version. 

Technically, at the moment, I'm writing a proposal for my next rom-com that is "off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush" (nod to James Ellroy) for now. There's nothing I can say about it other than it takes place on Martha's Vineyard in July and I am really looking forward to going to the Vineyard next summer (please let the world be normal again) for the research. A hardship, I know.

The next project in the queue is tackling the copyedited manuscript for For Batter or Worse. I have a few weeks to get them done so it's nice to be able to take my time as I go through the manuscript. I've been very fortunate with my copyeditors and I'm not the sort of author who can't have her genius questioned. If a copyeditor doesn't "get me", I try to see why and if there are tweaks necessary to make my words more accessible, I'm happy to make them.

After that, I should have the revisions for Wait For It, the women's fiction rom-com coming out next summer. It's set in Phoenix, my current hometown area, so that was fun to write. Revisions are actually my favorite part of the process as the hard work of getting the words on the page are done and the pruning and reshaping can happen with clearer eyes.

Here's a sneak peek at a section of the proposed cover (just for fun):

Then, it's "back to one" to write Killer Research, the next library lover's mystery set in the fictional town of Briar Creek, CT, due by the end of the year. Oh, wow, it's mid October! I think I just broke into a sweat. 

This is the convergence of projects moment where I tend to have repeated small panic attacks. I have something in every stage of production RIGHT NOW and if I think about it too much I get completely overwhelmed which causes me to become paralyzed and then I spend endless hours on Etsy, shopping for everything from corn scented ear of corn shaped soap to a Ouija board lunch box. I wish I was kidding but I really am a master level at procrastination.

Ear of corn soap!

Ouija Lunchbox!

When I peel myself off Etsy, I try to cut my work down to manageable bites and figure out just what has to be done that day. Some days are amazing and I get more done than I planned and other days are a complete bust, and I am sure I'm doomed. After ten years, I'm getting used to the pitch and roll of this writer's ocean but still.

I get a lot of questions about my time management since I do manage to get things done. I wish I had a simple answer but the truth is I just overcommit and then flail around at the keyboard in a complete flurry of angst until I get the words on the page, the copyedits read, the revisions shaped, and so forth. When my back is to the wall, I turn off the Internet and give the Hub my phone. That usually does the trick. Well, that and snacks.

So, Reds and Readers, do tell? What is your procrastination of choice? How do you kick start yourself when you are literally out of time?


Saturday, October 24, 2020

What We're Writing Week: Julia Adjusts to Advent

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Like Rhys, I'm also writing a book set in the Christmas season, or, to be more precise, during Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas. Advent is a rather solemn counterpoint to the orgy of food, lights and decoration that takes place between Thanksgiving and December 25. The nice thing is, if you observe Advent, Christmas lasts from that day until January 6th - and this year, most of us are likely to be home for the whole time to enjoy it.

AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY will not, sadly, have plum pudding, but I am enjoying weaving in the rituals of the season as practiced in a contemporary small American town and in a contemporary small Episcopal church. In today's scene, Russ Van Alstyne (in charge of baby Ethan) bumps into Officer Hadley Knox, whose two kids sing in the St. Alban's children's choir. They sit in a pew with a couple mugs of coffee to watch the rehearsal.

How was Thanksgiving?” 

Knox blew on her coffee. “Quiet. Grandad's sick. I'm hoping it's not the flu.” She looked toward the ceiling, as if asking for strength. “He refused to get his flu shot or the pneumonia shot this fall. Said it's all a con by the pharmaceutical companies.” She shook her head. “He doesn't even have to pay for them, for crying out loud.” 

Considering her grandfather was in his late seventies, diabetic, and had survived a massive heart attack a few years back, Russ could see why she was so frustrated. She took a sip. “How about you? How are you doing? With...” her vague sweeping gesture encompassed him, the baby, and the church. 

Not bad."

Are you,” she sounded hesitant, “job hunting yet?” 

Nope. Thought it would be good to cool off for a bit. Take my bearings and figure out what I really want to do between now and retirement. I started working as an MP when I was what, twenty? Twenty-one? I've been a cop ever since.” 

Do you miss it?” He smiled, showing his eyeteeth. “No more than I'd miss my foot if it were lopped off.” 


She took another drink of coffee. “Ah.” The children in the choir pews began singing. Ethan shifted forward, mouth open, and started crawling up the aisle. Russ figured he didn't need to grab him just yet – the first step up to the altar rail would stop him. “How about you? How are things at work?” What the hell, she brought it up first. 

She see-sawed her hand. “MacAuley's doing fine as interim chief. You know how he is – very organized and methodical. He was always good at scheduling and stuff like that.” That Russ's deputy chief had been less good at personnel and conflict resolution went unsaid. “Eric's back working full time, but we're still shorthanded, and the board of aldermen isn't showing any sign of opening up their pockets for another officer.” 


Russ hummed agreement. “We were understaffed even before Kevin left. I should have replaced him immediately, instead of letting the board get used to a skinnier budget for us. For the department.” Kevin Flynn, the youngest member of the MKPD, had taken a job at the Syracuse Police Department not quite a year ago. Russ could see now, as he hadn't then, that he'd been unconsciously hoping the kid would return to Millers Kill. “You heard anything from him?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. I've left a couple messages on his cell and on Facebook, but...” 

Have you tried calling Syracuse again?” Three weeks ago, he had done just that, to be told Kevin had taken a leave of absence for family business. Except Knox had called the Flynns, and they had no idea where their son was. 

No, I don't want to be stalker-y.” She made a sound of frustration. 

Look, working undercover was hard on him. He's probably taking his bearings and figuring out what he wants to do next.” 

You think so?” Knox sounded dubious. 

Kevin was thrown into the deep end for several months and then got yanked from the investigation before anything was finished. So yeah, I think it's entirely likely he's trying to decide if he wants to continue being a cop, if he wants to go someplace else, if he just wants to stay at home and raise his kid.” Ethan had reached the first wide step up to the altar area and, as predicted, was stumped. 

Knox looked at him sideways. “I don't need to point out Flynn doesn't have any kids, right?” 

You know what I mean.” He took another drink of coffee to avoid sighing like a sad sack. “It's a tough field. People leave for something else all the time.”

Kevin once told me all he ever wanted to do was be a cop. He said he got hired as soon as he turned twenty-one.” 

Russ laughed. “Oh, God, yes. I remember that. He was all arms and legs and red hair, hadn't even finished growing into himself. It was like having an Irish setter puppy running around in the shop. The radar gun was exciting. Traffic duty was exciting. We had a homicide that year and he helped at the scene. I had to tell him to stop grinning and commenting how cool it all was.” 


The kids had paused the song, and Betsy Young was going over their two parts, soprano and treble. 

I can believe it. He'd calmed down a little by the time I came onto the force, but still. Do you see that guy wallowing in some sort of existential crisis about his future?” 

Russ breathed in. “No.” 


JULIA:  Poor Russ, he wants to be moving on, but he certainly seems to be stuck in the job he left (about a month ago in book-time.) Have any of you ever had a job that was hard to leave behind?


Friday, October 23, 2020

What We're Writing--Debs Tromping on Literary London

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've been fascinated for years by the idea of literary Bloomsbury. This part of London near the British Museum is famous for its literary associations with the "Bloomsbury Set", a group of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists, which included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes, among others. Many of the group lived near 51 Gordon Square. Charles Dickens lived for a time in Doughty Street, and Charles Darwin in Gower Street. This was all heady stuff for me and these associations influenced my decision to move Duncan Kincaid to the police station in Holborn, right in the heart of Bloombury. 

But Bloomsbury had surprises for me! In the book-in-progress, I put two of my characters in a flat in Guilford Street, the location chosen one night when I was walking in London in the rain. Imagine my delight when I discovered just recently that in the 1920s both Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Sayers had lived literally around the corner from my fictional characters in Mecklenburg Square (although not at the same time.) 

We usually see photos of both writers--especially Sayers--when they were older, but I like to think of them as they might have looked in the Mecklenburg Square period, when they were both establishing  independent and creative lives. Here's Sayers as a young woman.

The Mecklenburg Square connection drove me back to Sayers' biographies, which I hadn't read in decades, and I'd forgotten that she had a couple of passionate affairs and an illegitimate child. It was only when she found herself pregnant that she learned her lover was already married, and it was her lover's wife who arranged for her to bear her child in secret. Now that's the stuff of fiction! In Gaudy Night Sayers used her own first floor flat in Mecklenburg Square as Harriet Vane's home.

And then I discovered that Sayers later lived for many years at 24 Great James Street, which is right behind Holborn Police Station. How did I not know this before?

When I can go to London again, I'm going to be walking in Sayers' footsteps!

But in the meantime, here's a little snippet that introduces the flat in Guilford Street, which is not nearly as elegant as the one in the photo above.


Melody settled into the back of the panda car beside Kincaid. He was on his mobile again, now talking to someone that she assumed was his team’s case manager. “Who’s available as FLO?” he asked, then nodded as he listened. “McGillivray? Good. Tell her to stand by until we get an address for the family.”

Of course, they would need a family liaison officer to inform the next of kin, Melody thought, and she didn’t envy whoever had caught the rota on that job. Dealing with bereaved relatives had never been her strong suit, and she’d often envied the easy way Gemma seemed to connect with the families they interviewed.

As Kincaid continued organizing his team, Melody realized that her feet felt like blocks of ice. She hadn’t been prepared for standing in puddles in the park and her ankle boots were soaked. Beside her, Kincaid’s coat gave off the distinctive aroma of wet wool as it steamed in the blast from the car’s heater. She thought of Gemma, going home to a warm, dry house, and wondered if she’d been a bit hasty in asking to tag along on this interview when she could be home and dry as well. But the rain-blurred streets zipped by and in moments the car was pulling to a stop, just as Kincaid ended his call.

Glancing out, Melody saw the bulk of Great Ormond Street Hospital rising on the south side of the street. On the north side was a rather grim-looking building in dark brick, its color indistinguishable in the gloom. Kincaid scrolled through his mobile, apparently checking the address. Nodding as if satisfied, he said, “Let’s see if Doug is here yet,” and tapped out a text.

Melody realized this was the first time she’d been alone with Kincaid since the weekend in Gloucestershire when she’d made such a disastrous hash of her life, and felt herself coloring with sudden awkwardness. Kincaid, however, seemed oblivious, and when his mobile pinged with a reply, he put it away and leaned forward to speak to the driver. “If you could wait, I don’t think we’ll be long. And then we’ll need a run to the station.” To Melody, he added, “Doug says he’ll buzz us in.”

Melody followed him as he slid out of the car and crossed the street, picking her way around the rivulets running in the gutters.

The fanlight-topped black door buzzed open as they reached it, and they stepped into a dingy hallway with a scuffed linoleum floor. The door to the ground floor flat opened, framing Doug Cullen. His eyes widened as he took in Melody. “What are you—” He shook his head. “Never mind. You’d better come in.”

He stepped back to allow them into a sitting room. The place was furnished in student chic—including the rice-paper globe covering the hanging ceiling bulb—but looked clean and relatively tidy. A rolling rack filled with women’s clothing had been positioned in front of the window, providing a curtain of sorts. There were a couple of squashy armchairs and a futon covered with layers of Kantha throw blankets and some sequined pillows. The flat smelled faintly of curry.

A high, shallow shelf above the futon held a row of the oddest dolls Melody had ever seen. They had distinctly individual clay faces, some with hats, some with molded hair, and they were dressed in random scraps of colorful cloth. Melody had the uncomfortable feeling that they were watching her.

REDS and readers, do you enjoy walking in literary footsteps? What famous writers' homes have you visited?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Lucy is Editing A SCONE OF CONTENTION #Writing

 LUCY BURDETTE: Not every stage of writing is as much fun as every other--not by a long shot. And the stages don't feel the same for every author. For me, the first draft is a monster. There's simply nothing to be done but slog forward with the word count, get feedback from trusted friends, and hope it all comes together in some magical way

And then comes the editorial letter and comments--that's where I am this week with A SCONE OF CONTENTION, the 11th Key West mystery, coming to a bookstore near you next summer. (This week, I learned that that the Crooked Lane team chose that for the new title--I love it! Another title had been selected first, but after mulling it over, I decided it was (a) too silly and (b) unrelated to the content of the book. So I begged for a change and my people agreed. Phew!) I will not bore you with the horrible details, but my computer failed last Thursday. I've only yesterday gotten it back so I can get to work. What did I do in the meanwhile? Bake cinnamon scones, which are featured in the book. (Recipe will come later...)

Anyway, back to edits. I feel very, very lucky to have scored Sandy Harding as my outside editor--she bought the series for NAL back in 2010. She understands the series, the characters, and the whole point of mysteries, cozier mysteries in particular. Here's a little example of a comment early in the manuscript next to the section where I described Hayley's new home--you'll see what I mean, she actually believes in the characters as I do. (If you can't read it, she said "This has been such a lovely description. I'm so glad she gets to live here!")

It's been such a horrible year between the pandemic and politics. So I adored writing this book, reliving some of my favorite places from our trip to Scotland last year and taking Hayley and her gang to visit. I have lots of work to do--mostly beefing up the murderer's motives so you believe that he or she is capable of the deadly deeds. But the comments all ring true so I know it will be stronger once I think and tweak. I will share the description that Sandy was referring to, so you can pretend you live on Hayley and Nathan's houseboat too...

I got up from my lounge chair on the teak deck and walked into our new houseboat, our home. Nathan and I had been living here two weeks and I still had to pinch myself to believe it was real. Though we’d spent months pouring over plans and many more months waiting for workers and materials to show up, the outcome was, in a word, stunning—without a whiff of flashy.

Our builder, Chris, had managed to secure Dade county pine lumber from a demolition project that now found a new life as my kitchen counters and drawers. He’d also managed to find Dave Combs, an amazing contractor and woodworker who helped to execute our dream to polished reality. At the deep end of the counter, he had built shelves where I lined up my pottery containers of baking supplies, and above that, vertical slats for my prettiest plates and, a little higher, a glass-fronted cabinet for the flowered blue china mugs and teapot that had been handed down from my grandmother’s kitchen. There was a separate shelf for my cookbooks and a gas stove on which every burner worked without coaxing or danger of explosion, and even a special cabinet that exactly fit the mammoth food processor that my mother-in-law had given us as a wedding present. From a wrought iron rack on the wall and ceiling over the stove hung an assortment of pots and pans, whisks, cheese grater boxes, and the other tools of my trade. 

Though I wrote food criticism for a living, I lived for feeding my family and friends. The new kitchen made that activity almost purely pleasurable. There were of course trade-offs that came automatically with living on a houseboat— neighbors were close by and the water all around us amplified every sound. That meant we shared our neighbors’ music, no matter the genre. And we heard every woof and meow from every furry resident. And space was at a premium. That meant that our bed, three steps up from the double oven at the end of the kitchen, was built into the wall of the bedroom with reasonable walk-in space only on his side and a smaller mattress than a well-muscled man might prefer. As newlyweds, we did not find this close proximity to be a drawback. And we loved waking up in the morning and looking out on our aqua blue watery world.

How about you Reds? Is there something you've read or written or worked on this year that has taken your mind off the horrors for a little bit of time?

And by the way, if you haven't yet read DEATH ON THE MENU (#8), or have a friend who might enjoy it--the ebook is on sale for $1.99