Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Tell Me a Story--Miranda James

DEBORAH CROMBIE: It's such a pleasure to bring you today's guest, Miranda James, author of the CAT IN THE STACKS mystery series featuring librarian Charlie Harris and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel. As many of you undoubtedly know, Miranda is really Dean, and Dean and I go WAY back, to the days when I was a newbie author doing my first book signings and Dean was working part time at the wonderful Murder by the Book in Houston. One of the biggest treats of Houston events for me was getting to visit with Dean over a lovely dinner, and I missed those very much when he relocated to Mississippi. But now I have Dean's Charlie and Diesel adventures to enjoy, so that is some consolation, and I'm looking forward to WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN, which launches tomorrow! Of course Dean and I talked about our mutual love of books over those dinners, and here he shares how that love of reading translated into a love of writing.


Miranda James

            When I choose a book to read, I want most of all a good story. Doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I expect a good story. At heart, I believe that’s what most readers want. For me, however, it’s essential. Literary flourishes are all well and good, and they can add layers to stories, but if there are flourishes simply for the sake of the writer’s saying, “Look what I can do,” they’re wasted on me. I’ve read many of the great classics, writers whose books are revered for their power, their elegance of style, and their illumination of the human condition. The best of them tell a good story, like Shakespeare’s plays, stories that remain relevant today.

             Wanting to tell a story motivated me to become a writer. I loved books as a child. My parents read to me, and I could read by the time I started first grade. I didn’t go to kindergarten. I was a country child who grew up on a farm. I also grew up in a family that loved stories, especially when the family gathered on the porch at my paternal grandparents’ house. There were also the Bible stories that were the staple of a Baptist church upbringing. When I finally figured out that books didn’t just magically appear, fully formed, on their own, that actual people wrote them, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

            The more I read as I grew up, the more convinced I was that I wanted to write, but I had to defer that dream while I got an education. I didn’t begin to write fiction seriously until I was in graduate school in Texas. What did I write? An academic murder mystery, of course. I’m not saying that being in graduate school drove me to murder but make of it what you will. I continued to devour mysteries along with all the books I had to read for grad school. I submitted my book to an editor and got a polite, but slightly encouraging rejection.

            More time passed while I continued to think about writing. I couldn’t afford to quit working in order to focus on writing, so I had to work around a full-time job and a part-time one, in order to get anything down on paper (or into the word processor, eventually). I was lucky to break into publishing in non-fiction first. This was the kind of analytical writing I trained to do in graduate school in medieval history. Writing fiction – and fiction that sold – was harder. I eventually had my breakthrough there as well, but it took me twenty-five years and fourteen mysteries before I became anything approaching a success.

            I’m working on the fifteenth novel in my Cat in the Stacks series now, with the fourteenth one out today, and my goal with this one is, as always, tell a good story. I learned how to tell a story by reading thousands of novels, most of them mysteries in the last forty years, and I advise any aspiring writer to read, read, read. Bad books, good books, mediocre books – and learn to tell the difference. Along with a good story, I also want to give readers characters with whom they can identify and whom they can begin to think of as friends. That’s why I write a series, rather than standalones.

            I also choose to write from the point of view of an amateur sleuth. Many critics decry these books as completely unrealistic. I know that my neighbor, who is retired, doesn’t stumble over dead bodies every few months. Neither do I, but my main character can, and I can have the vicarious pleasure of an adventure, the way I have done over the years with everyone from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple to Meg Langslow. I can only hope that my readers are enjoying my stories as much as I enjoy writing them. 

DEBS: We do! And I have to add that the CAT IN THE STACKS covers are absolutely the most  charming!

 Miranda James, a serial killer by night and on weekends, is a mild-mannered medical librarian by day. Miranda has four cats and thousands of books. Home is the Jackson, Mississippi, area.

Here's more about the latest CAT IN THE STACKS:

When Charlie Harris finds out he has unexpectedly inherited his grandfather’s old farmhouse, he has no idea he is about to embark on the search for another killer. His Maine Coon cat Diesel finds a skeleton in the farmhouse attic, and Charlie has to wonder whether his grandfather, or the life tenant who recently died, was responsible. When a fresh corpse turns up on the property, Charlie is even more determined to find out what is going on.

DEBS: I know Dean was looking forward to doing an in person signing at Murder by the Book, but the Covid surge in Texas has sadly made that untenable.  Readers, how much are you missing those in person events?         

Monday, August 30, 2021

Back to School

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My little granddaughter started kindergarten last week. Oh, my, what a rite of passage that is! Do you remember your very first day of school? For me it was first grade, as we didn't have public kindergarten in my town in those days. I was an anxious kid anyway, so I was terrified. But it was exciting, too, and the most exciting part was getting school supplies. Number two pencils. Ruler. Scissors with blunt tips. Elmer's Glue and a box of crayons with that lovely waxy smell. Big Chief tablets and colored construction paper. A pencil case, oh joy, and art gum erasers. And last but not least, the lunchbox! (Branding was already underway.) We were ready to conquer the world!



Wren's school supply list was a lot more complicated, and her lunch box is a bento box, not a metal one with The Flintstones. But I'm sure she felt the same sense of promise and adventure, and I"m convinced that geeky kids who love school supplies never grow out of it. Some of us may even have grown up to be writers.

What about you, REDS? Any first day of school recollections? And what was your favorite part of the school supplies?

JENN McKINLAY: Fall was always my favorite season growing up in New England, because even though I was no scholar, I LOVED the social aspect of school. Uber extrovert - that’s me. School supplies are awesome! I still love buying a fresh clean notebook to jot down ideas and I love pencils and erasers. I was a weirdo when it came to the lunchbox, however. I passed over the Scooby Doo and Wonder Woman plastic boxes in favor of a metal red plaid lunch box. I still love plaid and I would still love that lunchbox if i had it. 


DEBS: I love plaid, too, Jenn, and would have coveted that lunch box. I saw one just like you described on Pinterest--maybe you could find one! 

HALLIE EPHRON: Oh my goodness do I remember the annual visit to the stationery store - an extinct creature today? Or Woolworths. See extinct. Buying such useful items as reinforcements. To be sure those precious pages would never come loose from my notebook. 

And that first day coming home after school making subject labels for the notebook dividers. Though I don’t think lunchboxes had been invented yet (no memory of anybody having book bags or backpacks, either), or at least I never had one. Just brought my lunch in a paper bag and bought milk (chocolate please) at school. 

The big deal for me was what to wear. Usually it was a plaid pleated skirt and white blouse (tucked in, of course) and shoes, oh the shoes had to be black flats or penny loafers with white socks. Oh, and where to sit. My favored spot , second row from the left, third seat back.


DEBS: Woolworth, Hallie! And we had M. E. Moses Five and Dime here in Texas, too. And as for the clothes, here's a photo I found of a class in 1959--


 Look at the shoes, and the dresses! And here's Wren's classroom on her first day--


I would certainly choose the modern classroom! And the clothes! Wren is wearing jeans and tennis shoes.

RHYS BOWEN: having grown up in England I never experienced the joys of shopping for school supplies or new clothes. Uniforms. And the school supplied all notebooks etc. And we ate in the dining hall   But Hallie reminded me of arriving early that first day to make sure I got the best seat. Second from the back, row beside the window! I could look out AND it was beside the radiator! ( my school was freezing cold). 


I remember being excited each year because each year came with more privileges: this table at lunch, use this play area etc until one day I was a prefect with a study. Privacy. Brilliant.


DEBS: So interesting, Rhys, and so different.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh I loved school and I loved going back to school every year. Like you Debs, I was an anxious girl, not an outgoing socialite like our Jenn! So I’m sure I was nervous too, but I only remember the excitement of the teacher assignments. Did we get someone whom everyone loved? That’s what I mostly remember. And I can remember some cute dresses like a dropped waist brown plaid dress with a white collar, that I’d still love today LOL. There was some angst my first year because my parents wanted to be sure that I knew how to spell my name. So either it had to be Bobbie, which was easier but not very accurate, or learn how to spell Roberta. I always had my older sister Sue on the bus with me, so I’m sure that helped all along the way. Our grandchildren seem to love nursery school and pre-K, so that is great news. It would be hard to know how to help a child who did not like school!


And PS, I suspect my seat was always up front because I couldn’t see very well. I think I finally got my glasses in fifth grade and suddenly things were much clearer!


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I had a lot of first-day-at-the-new-school moments, since we were in the military and moved around a lot from post to post. I think I really began to enjoy the start of the school year after we got out - I only went to two high schools, the last for three years, so I felt I belonged. 


My sister and I always got new outfits as teens, and I can remember spending what feels retrospectively like weeks going from sale to sale in August. My mother had a set budget, and the more things you could find that had been marked down, the more shirts/shoes/sweaters you could have! Like everyone else, I still love the new school supplies - paper and notebooks and organizers and pencils and pens. Honestly, September feels as much like a fresh start as January does.  


Oh, and Rhys, I'm sorry you didn't get the fun of new clothes, but as the mother of three kids who went to parochial schools, I say, "Thank God for uniforms!" They make it so easy for parents... 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:I loved going back to school. With three ring binders, and yes, reinforcements which you had to lick, and I’m not quite sure why they mattered, but it seemed so organized. What to wear, yikes, so critical, I remember in eighth grade or so...a black and white wool houndstooth skirt and a red crewneck sweater,which looked great, but the first day of school it was like, 80 degrees and I insisted on wearing it anyway. Oh, and whether your tennis shoes had to be shoe-polished white or completely scuffy--the cool people decided that, and we all followed. Same with whether you put a penny or a dime in your loafers--one way was acceptable, the other was a signal that you were out of it.


Then there was the first day when I was almost late because the night before, our cat Mrs. Purdy had kittens in my closet.


And sign of the horrible times, my grandson had his first day at college Friday, and turned out his roommate was NOT VACCINATED! His parents went politely nuts, and he got moved. (And yes, the school has a vaccine mandate.)


DEBS: Oh, Hank, that's terrible. But at least his school has a mask mandate. Wren's does not, and she is the only child in her class (and one of the few kids in her school) wearing one. Teacher is not masked either. 


A last hug from Mom on Wren's first day!

READERS, what are your first day of school memories? And are you still school supply geeks?

Sunday, August 29, 2021

James R Benn on Road of Bones


LUCY BURDETTE: Today we welcome our friend James R Benn, the author of the acclaimed Billy Boyle series. He raises a question dear to all writers' hearts: What to call the darn book? Take it away Jim!

What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Act II Scene ii)

James R Benn: What’s in a name? That’s the question authors confront when choosing the title for their book. The truth is, any other name will not smell as sweet. No matter how good the writing between the covers, the title must grab the reader’s attention. A poorly chosen title—one that is perhaps clumsy or boring—can keep readers from cracking open the book. A title’s job, in my opinion, is to force a question. To stop the browsing reader in their tracks. To arouse their curiosity. 

For me, the title also has another job. It should reflect the theme of the book, to act as a constant reminder of the deeper thread of meaning I am weaving into the story. Some authors may not place so much emphasis on the title in their process. Some may pick the title after the manuscript is complete. But for me, it’s a symbol of what I’m writing about.

So, when I decided to set a Billy Boyle novel in the Soviet Union (thanks to Reed Farrell Coleman, but that’s another story), I began the search for a title as soon as I started my research.

It didn’t take long.

The R504 Kolyma Highway is a road through the Russian Far East, aka Siberia. It’s also known as the Road of Bones.

Title search complete. 

The road, most often called the Kolyma Route, is a gravel track, often covered in mud or ice. It was built by political prisoners during the Soviet Union's Stalinist era. Inmates of the Sevvostlag labor camp started the first stretch in 1932, and construction continued into the 1950s. The prisoners worked in horrifying conditions. Winter was long and bitterly cold, summer blisteringly hot, rampant with swarms of mosquitos. The Kolyma Route extends to Yakutsk, where the coldest temperature ever outside of Antarctica was recorded. 

As prisoners extended the roadway, it was used to bring in more prisoners to camps that comprised Stalin’s Gulag. The Kolyma Route stretches 1,260 miles through desolate, frozen wasteland, connecting Magadan on the Pacific Ocean to the city of Yakutsk, 280 miles south of the Arctic Circle. 

Why is it called the Road of Bones?

The roadway was built on permafrost. It is estimated that between a quarter million to one million slave laborers died in the process. Where to bury all those bodies? The Soviets solved the probably neatly, interring the corpses in the fabric of the road.

If the high estimate of the death toll is correct, that makes for 793 bodies per mile entombed within the Road of Bones.

As Joseph Stalin said, “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”

The Mask of Sorrow is a monument located on a hill above Magadan, Russia, commemorating the many prisoners who suffered and died in the Soviet forced labor system. 

Photo credit: Сергей Ковалев, via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a recently freed Russian political prisoner in Road of Bones—the book, not the route—and his fear of being sent back to the camps is a driving force behind the story. The title helped to focus me on writing about the challenges of existence within the oppressive Communist system, and the chilling effect it had on Soviet citizens.

But wait. There’s more to the story. There’s a ghost. Or a ghostly woman, as The Siberian Times called her in 2018. Spotted at several locations at the southern terminus of the Road of Bones, she walks alone, refusing all offers of assistance, even in frigid winter weather. Her name may be Luidmila. She may be from Kazakhstan, and she may be headed for Kamchatka, a peninsula that extends into the Pacific Ocean. She’s been called a spirit of Siberia and the ghost of a prisoner who died on the road. Nothing is certain about her, so feel free to make up your own answer. 

That’s my story. Now tell me yours.

Everyone, what’s your favorite title?

Here’s my book title of the month. Hats off to Dennis Duncan and this brilliantly clever title:

Writers, how do you select your titles? Does it sound like I’m over-thinking all this, or does something here ring true?

Readers, does a unique or interesting title grab your attention? Or does this sound like a whole lot of folderol?

James R. Benn is the Dilys, Barry, and Sue Feder Historical Mystery award nominated author of the Billy Boyle WWII mysteries. He splits his time between the Connecticut shoreline and the west coast of Florida, with his wife, copyeditor Deborah Mandel.

About Road of Bones:

Billy Boyle is sent to the Soviet Union to conduct an investigation into a double murder. Teamed with a KGB agent, he has to navigate the dangerous currents of life in Stalinist Russia.

***In other business this week, Kevin Tipple is the winner of the Bouchercon anthology, This Time for Sure. Please email me raisleib at gmail dot com with your snail mail address.

***And Robin Coxon is the winner of A Time to Swill. Email Sherry with your snail mail address to arrange the drop! sherryharrisauthor at gmail dot com.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

What to Take in a Hurricane

LUCY BURDETTE: Honestly, hasn’t this been an unbearable week news-wise? It’s a little hard to maintain a person's optimistic equilibrium. And then I woke last Friday to see the above prediction on my weather app. 

We kind of expect the worst storms in Key West, but occasionally they come to our summer spot, Connecticut. I freak out no matter which place is in the bullseye. I don’t want to live through a scary hurricane, I get nervous with a lot of wind and a bad thunderstorm. We live in a low lying neighborhood that has been flooded more than once, suffering damage and long blackouts during both Sandy and Irene.

And besides, our town‘s first selectwoman had emailed, texted, and Robo-called us to say we needed to evacuate by 8 PM Saturday. Why would I argue with her?

 John, being a more phlegmatic personality, would have been happy to ride out the storm. Then some good friends who live 40 minutes inland invited us to stay along with the animals. The writing was on the wall. The only question left was what to pack. 

Several of our neighbors were declining to evacuate, even though by this point the fire department had also come through all the streets to suggest that we leave. One neighbor, with anxiety even greater than mine, had packed up all of her important stuff including birth certificate, marriage certificate, and insurance papers. We both packed plenty of pet food. Lottie would be happy eating people food if her kibble ran out, but T-bone is particular. Prescription medication for everyone who needs it, of course.

Here are the furries hunkered down in their hurricane shelter quarters, both a little nervous.

I also packed my computer with pretty much my life on it, including the book that is due on Tuesday, A DISH TO DIE FOR. And my phone and iPad with multiple chargers. But what about books? John would point out that my Kindle app is loaded with more books than I’ll ever finish in my lifetime, but I also have a marvelous stack of hardcover and paperbacks that I’ve been collecting over the summer. Was I going to load them all into the car? I whittled it down to two.

Here are my furries after we'd been at our friends' place for an hour.

As it turned out, the storm was a bust, thank goodness. So was I sheepish? Not really, we had a nice visit with our friends, and I would do the same thing next time. I can write my characters into all kinds of scary situations, but I don't have the nerve to stick out weather danger myself.

How about you? Are you an evacuator, or someone who will hold the line against any kind of weather? If you were leaving and had a little time to prepare, what would you take?