Sunday, January 16, 2022

What We're Writing: Jenn Plunders History

I am a plunderer of history. Sorry. Not sorry.

I say this because most of my settings are fictional or a mashup of fact and fiction as I don't want those pesky facts to get in the way of my story. This is one of the many reasons I admire historical novelists (looking at you, Rhys) who just intuitively know how to weave historical facts into their work, making you feel as if you're right there in that moment in time. 

As I sit at my desk in my office, looking at the clownish lovebirds on the birdfeeder outside my window... pause to admire birdies...

...I am debating how to use Arundel Castle in West Sussex as a setting for my mystery solving hat shop duo without actually using the castle itself -- just its history or the bits I want, thank you very much. After much internal debate, I decided to create an adjacent castle, called Waverly Castle but I stuck it in East Sussex and there you go. The original Arundel Castle was founded by the Earl of Arundel, Roger de Montgomery, during the reign of Edward the Confessor so I had Waverly Castle established around the1060's as well, specifically, 1060-ish. I really like to use the "ish" factor in my novels which, again, keeps the annoying details at bay. 

Since I can't book a trip to England and tour Arundel myself for inspiration right now (thanks, pandemic), I have to stick to studying other people's travelogues. If you're a a castle lover, this one is fabulous:

Arundel Castle

I've enjoyed reading up on the history of castles in England -- there are said to be over 4,000. Fascinating and another factoid to work into the manuscript -- yes, of course, I did. 

Here's a snippet of Fatal Fascinator, from its infancy of a first draft -- which feels much like plowing a rocky field in the pouring rain with a horse with an attitude.

Back story: My sleuths are attending a wedding at the castle, that is, until the groom is found murdered. Don't worry. We don't like him. But here my American heroine, Scarlett Parker, learns a little bit about Waverly Castle. I find I like to throw information into dialogue because it's less boring (to me) that way.  

     “Did you know that Waverly Castle was built during the time of Edward the Confessor?” I asked Viv as I re-entered the sitting room.

     “It was established then,” Viv said. “But was nothing like the building we're in now. It was a motte and bailey castle to start with.”

     I thought about pretending to know what she was talking about and just look it up later, but I knew Viv wouldn’t judge me for not knowing the intricacies of castles since, as I mentioned to Harry, we don’t really have that many of them in America. McMansions, sure, but castles not so much.

     “Explain,” I said. 

     “A motte is a raised piece of earth where a wooden keep is built,” Andre said. He entered the sitting room from the opposite bedroom. He had his camera in his hand and was fussing with a lens. “And a bailey is an enclosed courtyard that sits at the base of the motte, also constructed out of wood.”

     I thought about the hill where Harry and I had found the door and realized it must have been the original motte. I wondered if the secret tunnel had been built then, too. “Not exactly a fortress then,” I said.  

     “No, thus making for a lot of raiding and pillaging,” Viv said. “Small wonder our ancestors were always at war. It can’t have been that hard to knock over a wooden fence.”

Arundel Castle - originally a motte and bailey castle

The scene goes on and I weave in more historical facts while twisting the setting to suit my purposes, naturally. I will say this, I am DEFINITELY going to visit Arundel Castle one day, you know, if we're ever allowed to do anything ever again. Sorry, I have the Covid grumpies.

So, how about it Reds and Readers, do you mind if an author plunders history for their own purposes? What line should they not cross? 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

What We're Writing Week - Julia Goes Hunting

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I wish I could come up with a theme for what I'm sharing with you today, like Lucy talking about distinguishing characters and Debs on revealing character with interior design. No, this excerpt from AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY is here because, as we can all testify, it gets hard to share pieces of the work-in-progress without giving something away!

This is a piece that comes at the end of the first act, when I've set up the protagonists, and the problem, and sent them on their journey. This is the point in the manuscript where I like to jump out and yell BOO! to my readers. I confess, the desire to have a shocker after several chapters of sedate sleuthing is what leads to my well-known habit of not having any bodies until a hundred pages into the book. 


When he saw the two men near a makeshift blind, his first reaction was annoyance. A birder had reported hearing firearms discharge in this area, so he had taken the day to check it out, but honestly, any birder who had trekked this far into the Adirondack Park at the beginning of December to knock a few nuthatches off their list couldn't be all that reliable. Although he had spotted a Golden-crowned kinglet when he disturbed a spruce thicket. That was cool.

No, he was annoyed because he'd been enjoying his so-far perfect day in the woods, and now these two were going to get up his nose when he ticketed them. It was one day past deer season, and there were always sports who couldn't get away from the office on Friday and figured it was no big deal to show up on Saturday afternoon instead. These yahoos didn't even have blaze orange on, and he'd have to write them up for that as well. He liked hunting as much as anyone, but rules were rules for a reason, and letting one day slide became one week, and then you had fools trying to harvest deer in January, and likely getting lost and frostbit to boot.

Hey, there, fellas.” He emerged from the brush he'd been using to get the lay of the land and waved. He wasn't worried about them bolting – there was no sign of an ATV anywhere, and neither of the pair looked fit enough to make it more'n a few dozen yards at top speed. Even dirt roads were scarce in this part of the High Peaks - he had left his four-wheel drive over a mile away. “Season ended yesterday, and you're not properly dressed. I'm going to have to see your IDs and hunting licenses.”

They turned, and their rifles came up, and he heard a BOOM-crack and a blow like an oak tree splitting and he tilted over and fell into the leaf mold and the long pine needles and saw the birds, more birds than he would have imagined, fleeing and shrieking into the dimming sky.


Dear readers, I have two questions: do I need to identify this viewpoint character as a NYS Forest Ranger? And should I give him a name? (He is named later on, when the question of what happened to him becomes relevant.)

Friday, January 14, 2022

What We're Writing--Debs on Decor

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been having some fun conversations about building character this week. As writers, we use dialogue and appearance, clothing and mannerisms, but describing a character's environment can also give us clues to a character's makeup. It can also be a lot of fun--and take us down research rabbit holes!

For example, the character in the scene below from A KILLING OF INNOCENTS belongs to a profession from which you'd expect a fair amount of tidiness and reasonably good hygiene, but I imagined that his private life might be quite different, not to mention odd.  I thought he would collect something unexpected and this is what occurred to me:

Kincaid found the light switch and a ceiling fixture threw the room into sharp relief. It took him a moment to sort the visual jumble of too much furniture in too little space, all of it seemingly brown and assembled from flat packs. Two sofas faced each other with a long coffee table squeezed in between. There were piles of newspapers on both, leaving only one clear space where the owner apparently sat. More newspapers were spread across the coffee table, splattered with yellow stains from an empty takeaway container—curry, from the smell.

This, Kincaid had taken in in a glance. It was the rest of the room that held his attention. Cheap book cases filled every available wall space. Their shelves were crammed, not with books, but with pair after pair of china dogs. Two tables on the other side of the room were similarly filled. One dog lay face up on the coffee table, its black painted eyes staring blindly at the ceiling.

“Good god,” breathed Sidana, stepping forward to stand beside him. “What is all this rubbish?”

But Kincaid had moved to the nearest bookcases and was examining the figurines more closely. The paint had faded on many of the dogs. Some were chipped, or cracked and re-glued. The small faces had distinct personalities—even within a pair, there were minute differences. Most were King Charles spaniels, the most common type, but at the end of one shelf Kincaid spied a pair of Dalmatians, rather crudely executed.

Shaking his head, Kincaid turned back to Sidana. “Not rubbish, I don’t think. We have a friend who’s an antiques dealer. I’ve seen similar dogs on his stall once or twice. These are Staffordshire, and I don’t think they’re reproductions. If I’m right, some of them”—he gestured towards the Dalamatians— “are worth a small fortune.”

I knew something about Staffordshire dogs, which were popular in English homes in the first half of the 20th century, but had no idea they were such a thing now! They are indeed very collectible and there are pages and pages of them on Pinterest and Etsy.

But they are also just a bit weird, especially those with the muzzle baskets--they look like little Hannibal Lecters! Perfect for my character!

And then we have something completely different, as Kincaid interviews the first character's neighbor :

He supposed he’d been expecting fussy, or at least cluttered, after the chaos of the downstairs flat. But when he’d knocked, and greeted Wallace the terrier, he was met by something very different indeed.

Light from the street-facing windows filled a sitting room that seemed airy despite its small size. The white walls held a series of bright, contemporary paintings, giving the space a gallery-like feel, and the furniture had been kept neutral so that it didn’t distract from the art. The ceiling was higher than the lower flat, and the kitchen had been opened up to the living area.... 

Kincaid saw that the glass-topped coffee table already held a teapot, two cups, and a plate of biscuits. The teapot and mugs were a deep glossy blue and looked hand thrown. As Kincaid took his cup, he noticed a rather incongruous stack of the Radio Times on the other end of the coffee table.

                                                                        In the Blue Light by Winston Branch

I could see this flat and its paintings so clearly in my imagination, but here's the fun part. I'd decided that this flat's owner was a retired appraiser for the famous auction house Christie's, and when I took a little look at Christie's website, what popped up in their catalogue but absolutely gorgeous paintings by an artist named Winston Branch. I'd never heard of Branch, or seen his work, but his painting were exactly what I'd visualized when I was describing the room.

                                                                                        Sunrise on Bodega Bay by Winston Branch

I love it when art imitates life. I did attribute the paintings to Branch, later in the scene.

Readers, do these little excerpts tell you something about these two characters? 

P.S. For the spoiler-averse, I've snipped out the characters' names.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

What We're Writing: Lucy's Figuring Things Out @Lucyburdette


LUCY BURDETTE: I’m slowly inching my way into Key West food critic #13, fondly known as the Scone Sisters mystery. I remember telling you last time writing week came around that my two Scottish ladies have arrived in Key West to help judge a contest seeking the next host for the American edition of the British Baking show. Since I don’t outline in advance in detail (as our ever-so-smart and prolific Jenn does,) I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over: I may have a wonderful concept, but when I sit down to write it, a million questions have been left unanswered. Things such as who is the killer? Why are they driven to murder? Who are the other reasonable suspects? Why are all these old ladies involved in police business? This is my process at this time—write some words, figure some things out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I’ve bumped up against another issue that I hoped you might find interesting. One of things that can stop me from reading a new book is if too many characters are introduced and I can’t tell them apart. In this new Key West book, how do I differentiate between the two sisters so that readers get to know them separately and individually? They appeared in A SCONE OF CONTENTION as a pair and they’ve never been on the page separately, so I don’t know them well as individuals. (Some might say this would be a good time for a writer to write up a several page bio on each…) Since that’s not likely, after the first draft is hammered out, I’ll have to focus on what makes them different from each other—the way they speak, or look, or their body language, for example.

This snippet is from the draft of Chapter Four. Hayley Snow has ferried Violet and Bettina and all their baking equipment and Miss Gloria to Williams Hall, where the contest is about to begin…

The real Martha Hubbard in her kitchen with Lucy

“How many contestants have you signed up?” asked Bettina.

“We started with six,” said Martha. “Several of them have backed out as the process continued so I’m afraid we’re down to three. I suppose it all sounds exciting to our home bakers to appear on television with the Scone Sisters, but the reality of competing over a week is a little harder. One woman couldn’t get the time off from her job. Another turned up with a recipe that was clearly lifted Word for Word from Cooks Illustrated, and the third was not sure that her husband would allow her to appear on camera.”

“Really?” Bettina had her hands parked on her hips. “I hope you urged her to leave that arse!” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “I shouldn’t say that in good company, should I?”

Martha grimaced. “I tried. She was really gifted too, and I told her she deserved a wide audience for her confections. When I phoned her to say she’d made the cut, she said she’d decided cooking and baking for her husband was reward enough. She waffled a bit, so who knows—she might show at the last minute.”

While we were busy unpacking the equipment and placing it on the counters where Martha suggested, the lights and camera crew arrived and began to set up. I felt a little bit nervous even watching how professional it all looked. But the Scottish ladies were taking it in stride.

“Don’t you get rattled in front of a crowd and these cameras?” Miss Gloria asked, leaning her elbows on the end of the counter as several bright lights were switched on.

“I was going to ask the same thing,” I said, and winked at Miss Gloria. “Comes from several years of living together I suppose, great minds and all that.”

“We were slightly bothered at the beginning,” said Violet. “But everyone kept telling us we were naturals, so after a bit we started to believe it.”

“All you have to do really is pay attention to what you’re doing—and we do know these recipes like old friends. Plus, ham it up a bit. We love giving our opinions about baking, and we love meeting the amateurs and showing them the ropes.” Bettina grinned. “Our motto is to be truthful but kind. They are the ones who are nervous as cats, and we’re so busy calming them down and trying to set the poor souls at ease that we forget about ourselves.”

“Besides, we are old ladies now,” Violet added. “What’s the worst can happen? Our lipstick smears or our hair is mussed? We don’t worry one bit about how we look in the camera.” She puffed up her gray hair and pooched her lips, now layered with glossy pink. 

Even the sternest cameraman laughed. “Can we get a run-through please with the sisters?” he asked Martha.

The ladies moved behind the expanse of white counter and began to lay out their ingredients. As they launched into describing their preparations for their prize-winning cinnamon scones, I saw my mother and Sam come in from the back entrance. I waved them over.

“They’re completely adorable,” my mother whispered when they drew close. 

“They are too cute in real time,” I whispered back, “but don’t they light up the room when they’re in front of a camera?”

I watched as they smiled cheerfully into the camera, bantering with each other as they measured the flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar and then grated frozen sticks of butter into the dry ingredients. 

“The cold butter is absolutely the secret.” Violet held a finger up to her lips. “We are sharing it here with you but please don’t pass it on.”

Bettina laughed, though she’d surely have heard her sister say that line many times. “Actually, we’d love it if you share it because we want everyone’s scones to succeed wildly. My sister thinks it’s the temperature of the butter, while I believe it’s the quality of the cinnamon. We did bring ours from the UK,”—she held up a small glass bottle—"but you can find good cinnamon lots of places in your country. Don’t settle for something that has been at the back of your cupboard for years. Don’t take a chance on a store brand either. You want your flavor to pop!” She clapped her hands together and mimicked the sound of a pop by smacking her lips.

The two of them stirred the grated butter into the dry ingredients, added a bit of milk and kneaded the dough lickety-split into a nice circle.

“Another secret,” Violet said, facing her sister again, “is not to overwork the dough. Nobody will mind one bit if it looks a little lopsided as long as the scones or biscuits rise high and taste flaky and delicious. Which they will if you keep that light hand, and remember your butter must be good quality, too. We of course prefer Scottish or Irish butter but do use whatever best quality you have here. Organic, unsalted, if you can.”

“She’s right for once,” Bettina added. She clapped the flour from her hands. “If you overwork the dough, you will produce curling stones instead of fluffy scones.” 

They began to laugh hysterically at their own joke.

Lucy here again. I would love to hear your thoughts about characters you remember as distinct, and what stood out about them?

Also, on another subject, for those of you who’ve read UNSAFE HAVEN, I would be very grateful if you’d leave a short review—wherever you talk books. Thank you! 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Who Am I? Rhys wrestles with new characters.


I am just taking the first tentative steps in writing a new book: a new stand-alone that takes place in France and England and Australia in various time periods. So a lot of work ahead of me.

When I start a new Spyness or Molly Murphy book it’s like visiting old friends. I know how my characters speak and react to each other. I know their environment. But with each stand alone it’s a new set of characters and a new setting to be meticulously researched. (Asks self why do I write stand-alones?)

When one starts any book the first question to ask is “whose story is it?” followed up with “what do they want and what is going to stop them from getting it?”

This is a big leap of faith when starting a new book, because obviously I don’t know my characters yet. I haven’t met them. They haven’t said things that surprised me and revealed aspects of themselves I didn’t know about. I’ve toyed with them in my head while I’m driving to the supermarket and come up with their basic traits and situation, but I’m having trouble starting to write this book because of the main character’s relationship with her father.

She doesn’t want to go home to him in England when war breaks out because:

1.They’ve had a contentious relationship

2.He never approved of her marriage. Or

3. He’s an unpleasant man Or

4.He’s a drunk

But I find that I want to like him. So…. I’m thinking he’s the true academic, not at all wordly and lost in the research of a book he’s writing. He’s also much older. An old father when she was born. But we need more…

I know her mother died in the Spanish flu epidemic when she was eight.


So he married again. He wanted someone to take care of him and his daughter. And the woman he married was a war widow who wanted someone to provide for her. But she’s objectionable and doesn’t like my heroine and the father is either so caught up in his books or will do anything for a quiet life that he doesn’t notice how unhappy his daughter is and allows the wife to send her off to boarding school.

So far so good. But is the new wife pushy? Jealous of the daughter? Uneducated? A social climber?  I can’t quite visualize her yet. It will have to come out in dialog. It usually does. I find a character opens her mouth and starts talking and I see who they are.

And the interesting thing is that almost none of this will appear on the page of the story I’m writing. It’s what formed my character and makes her into who she is. Perhaps the step-mother isn’t horrible at all. Perhaps my heroine was so devastated by the loss of her mother that she never forgave her father for marrying again? Perhaps they will reconcile by the end of the story?

So many things to work out before I even type the words chapter 1.

How about the other writers here: do you get to know your characters before you start to write or do they reveal themselves to you as the story goes along? Who plunges ahead blindly with a leap of faith and who works like Elizabeth George and writes long character sketches of every character first?

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

What We're Writing? Hank's Re-writing.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I'm in the midst of editing my new book, still called 'HANK'S UNTITLED NEW BOOK.'  It will not be called Her New Best Friend, (and you heard it here first) because Her New Best Friend might sound like a sequel to Her Perfect Life. And so it goes.  

So now I am cutting, tweaking, editing. Below are snaps of real pages from the manuscript. You can see the changes.

Herewith, a scene starring the sole narrator in this single point of view psychological novel of suspense. You don't need to know more at this point.  Read his, and then, when you're finished, I have a question for you.

  from Chapter 21

The gray metal door of Room 611 was marked FBI in peeling gray decals. Alyssa twisted the knob to open it, but it was locked. She pushed a square black button on the door jamb, heard a buzz from inside. She’d been so surprised by that—a government office should be open, shouldn’t it?—that she’d wanted to check her text reminders to make sure she had the correct place. But before she could get her phone unlocked, she’d heard footsteps inside, and then a click, and then Agent Hattie Parker stood in the opened doorway. 

“Thank you for being so punctual,” Parker said. “Come in. Agent Espinal will join us shortly.” 

 Parker might have been wearing the same black jacket and pants as yesterday, but there was not a wrinkle or a crease, and Alyssa could almost smell the starch in her pristine white shirt. 

 No receptionist. No waiting room. No thin-cushioned fifties-era couches, no stacks of old magazines on a government-issue coffee table. The door to Room 611 led directly to an office, a government-beige metal desk with a black desk pad and black phone on top; not a speck of dust, and if the room had been prepared for a private meeting. Outside the open slatted blinds of a double-wide window, the view revealed a brick and concrete pedestrian plaza. 

Beyond that, the complicated cornices and stone columns of the John Adams Building. Where, Alyssa knew, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts sat, issuing their final verdicts on defendants’ futures. The irony was not lost on her. Maybe the FBI used that view as a reminder, or a downright threat, of what could happen if their interview subjects got on the wrong side of the law. Though court should be equally concerned with protecting people. Alyssa did not feel as if anyone was protecting her now. 

 “Have a seat, Ms. Macallen.” Agent Parker had somehow set her tone as a cross between solicitous hostess and drill sergeant. She looked at her watch, a chunk of black plastic and rubber. 

 “Are we being recorded?” Alyssa’s brain screamed lawyer-lawyer-lawyer but she knew that if she did that, called in an attorney and changed the entire dynamic, she’d lose what little control she had, and this whole thing might escalate to a place she could not afford to go. 

Afford, she thought again. She’d tough this out. See what she could find out. For as long as she could. 

 “I can’t record you without your permission, Ms. Mac--may I call you Alyssa?” 

 Parker was leaning toward solicitous hostess now, Alyssa thought. But her deference rang false, obvious enough to be annoying. 

 “Of course.” Alyssa matched her insincere tone and straightened in the black and silver metal chair; its rigid square shape meant more for easy storage than for human comfort. Tried to take back a bit of control. She was guest, an invited guest, and she could leave as easily as she’d arrived. They were FBI, but that didn’t mean she had to play the victim. 

“And it’s Hattie?” Alyssa went on, not waiting for an answer. “You came to my house last night at what I fear was an inconvenient time for me. So now that I have a bit of time to focus on your inquiries, how can I help you?” 

Alyssa heard the door rattle, then the click of a lock. 

“Sorry to be delayed. Agent Parker, Ms. Macallen.” Espinal handed Parker a manila envelope, which she put on the desk without looking inside. 

 This clearly was not her office, Alyssa thought again. But whose was it? It seemed impersonal, with no files or book-filled shelves, no stacks of papers, no personal knickknacks or weary yellowing plants lined up along the windowsill. She sneaked a peek into the upper right corner of the room, then the left, but didn’t see any cameras. 

“There are no cameras here, Ma’am,” Parker said. 

 “There’s no nothing here,” Alyssa said, trying to sound amused. “Is the FBI having money problems?” 

She heard an almost-laugh from Espinal. He’d stationed himself in front of the door, which made it awkward for her, since she could only look at one of them at a time. While they could both see her.  And it blocked her exit.

 She wondered if this was tactics, or simply too many people in a too-small room. Or maybe that was tactics, too. And they were taking long enough to get to the point. 

“As always,” Espinal said. “Most of our offices moved to Chelsea, as you might know. But we’ve kept a few satellite offices here, just for convenience. Proximity to the courthouse. And privacy. But Uncle Sam did not provide us much of a budget line item for decorating.”

 “Ah.” That made sense, Alyssa supposed. She looked at her own watch, not trying to hide her movement. 

 “We won’t be long, “ Espinal said. 

 “We hope,” Parker added. 

“We just have a few questions.” 

“And we hope you can help us.”

 It was like watching a tennis match to keep up with them. And without knowing which of the agents was in charge, it was difficult for Alyssa to avoid it.

HANK: Okay? How about that scene? Is there conflict? Sure. Tension? Sure. A decision in process? Sure. Stakes? You'd know them if you read what comes before.

Will you read this scene in HANK'S NEW UNTITLED BOOK? Nope. Like 19,000 other words, I cut the entire thing.

Boom. Gone.

Okay. Here's the deal. 

I ask myself every time: What work does this scene do? Hmm. 

We already know the FBI has talked to Alyssa--we were in that scene the day before. We have set up they are in a contentious cat and mouse situation. 

So...distilling what we actually learn in this scene: The FBI office is not what Alyssa expected. She doesn't want to be there, but she wonders what they're up to. She's worried about exactly what the agents think they know. And she is trying to take control of the situation.

So. What action do we have here: PROCESS.

And: We already know the things we get from this scene.

As a result: Gone. A scene you will never read in a book. 

And I was delighted to cut it.

Welcome to writing.

Reds and Readers, what do you think?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Hallie mines a pathway from the kitchen to memories

HALLIE EPHRON: It's WHAT WE'RE WRITING and as usual, I get to lead off

Last week I made lists. On the list: Make chicken paprika. When I was done, I ticked the box. Does that count as writing? Actually, it does.

True, I was preparing to host old friends for dinner. But I was also developing a project I’ve just begun to tackle: how food opens gateways in my memory.

Making chicken paprika always conjures memories of my mother, Phoebe Wolkind Ephron

. “Mother,” never “Mom” or “Mommy.” She of the designer suits and Cherries in the Snow lipstick. I can’t remember her ever dusting a table, making a bed, or washing a dish.

She was a Hollywood screenwriter who'd grown up poor in the Bronx and prided herself on being able to buy her own mink coat. We had a live-in cook and a nanny and, as she once told a New York Times reporter on the eve of the Broadway opening of a play she’d written, she only set foot in the kitchen “to get ice cubes.”

Here's a picture of her leaving the Twentieth Century Fox commissary with my dad.

Dinner in our house was always delicious (our live-in cook Evelyn Hall was brilliant) but basic. Three courses starting with grapefruit or melon or canned fruit cocktail. Then meat (roast beef, lamb chop, fried chicken…) with rice or potatoes or corn, plus green beans or a salad. Nothing with sauce. No vegetables as exotic as acorn squash or eggplant or cabbage. Salt and pepper and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.

Me and my three sisters could eat or not eat. No tantrums if you didn’t like what was on your plate. The only rule was you sat pleasantly at the table, and if you didn’t finish your milk, you didn’t get dessert. There was always dessert and it was a powerful incentive.

And then, one day when I was about nine, CHICKEN PAPRIKA drew my mother to the kitchen on cook’s night out.

I try to imagine her, lying in bed the night before. Paging through THE JOY OF COOKING which sat alongside a pile of OZ books and an Agatha Christie on her bedside table. Landing on the recipe for Chicken Paprika.

I can see her heading into the kitchen on a Sunday night. Maybe she wore an apron – for my imagination, that’s a bridge too far. What I do remember is how she taught me to chop an onion – skinning it first, cutting it in a checkerboard pattern nearly all the way through, and then slicing off narrow the layers. The recipe has as many onions in it as it does chicken.

There was much fanfare in the dining room where my father, in his usual role, ladled our plates with flat noodles and chicken paprika, topped with a dollop of sour cream. There was silence as we tasted.

A dramatic pause.

Then we oohed and aahed. It was delicious and so totally unlike anything I’d ever had before.

Inspired, she described her cooking adventure. Act by act, beat by beat, how she’d chopped and sauteed and thickened. Where she’d followed the instructions and where she’d improvised, tasted and seasoned.

This woman who wrote scripts for romantic comedies and dramas, who “put in a full day at the office” (as she told that New York Times reporter) and turned out pages and pages of dialogue and set directions, typed in triplicate, and never gave me even the tiniest hint of what being in that world was like, gave us chapter and verse on what she’d been up to in the kitchen.

Chicken paprika – the recipe is about two inches long in my (mother’s) copy of The Joy of Cooking.
It's blessedly simple and direct, as are all of Rombauer's recipes. That page is bespattered with sauce drippings and stained where the red ribbon that came attached to the book had to have marked the page for ages.
I like to think those are the spatters she left behind as she launched a tentative, voluntary foray into domesticity.

Do foods conjure memories of people for you, too? Or is it a smell? Or a place? Or maybe even a word that opens a gateway?

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Spirits and Sourdough by Bailey Cates

Jenn McKinlay: Baking has always seemed magical to me - put in flour bring out cake - so I'm sure it's no surprise that one of my favorite cozy mystery series combines the two principles in the delectable and long running Magical Bakery Mystery series. Here's the wonderful author Bailey Cates to tell us more!

Bailey Cates: Hi all! Jenn, thanks for inviting me to the Jungle Reds. I love this eclectic, smart space that’s so full of moxie.


My latest book, Spirits and Sourdough, is the tenth in the Magical Bakery Mystery series. I try to marry the titles and the content of my books, though that doesn’t always work. Spirits and Sourdough, however, has both spirits and sourdough.


The sourdough starter that herbal witch and baker Katie Lightfoot brought to Savannah, Georgia from Akron, Ohio at the beginning of the series has had its own arc of sorts, gradually replacing the yeasts from where it began its journey with the yeasts of Katie’s new home, thus creating a new flavor profile over time.


The spirits in the title come from the ghost tour Katie goes on with other members of her spellbook club (read: coven). Savannah is known as the most haunted city in the United States, so at some point that had to play a major role in one of the books. In Spirits, the tour guide is a friend of one of the spellbook club members. She is a young woman who can literally see dead people. This makes her an excellent ghost tour guide since she can steer her clients toward brushes with the supernatural but leaves her feeling like an outsider. Katie also felt like an outsider until she discovered her magical gift of hedgewitchery. So, when the young woman tells Katie the ghost of a recently murdered woman wants Katie to find her killer, she steps into the investigation both to find justice for the victim – whom she knew – and to help the tour guide.


In addition, there’s the spirit of Katie’s deceased grandmother, who shows up regularly in the series. Also, Katie’s new husband’s guardian spirit has gone missing, so she’s trying to get him back. Lots of spirits made their way into this one.


Just as I don’t cast spells (though strongly believe in intentions) or have an actual familiar (don’t tell Cheesecat the Orange), I don’t have personal experiences with spirits. Except once, but I’ll get to that. I don’t know that I believe in ghosts. More like I don’t not believe in ghosts.


I’ve sought out paranormal encounters on occasion. One place was The Marshall House in Savannah, where there’s a rich history of hauntings and where the murder victim’s spirit comes to Katie’s tour guide. For me, there were no bumps in the night, no cold spots, no children trying to bite me in my sleep (part of the charming history I left out of the cozy plot). I live relatively near the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in the Shining, and have stayed there overnight. I didn’t sleep well, listening for children running in the hallway, and hoped for at least a bit of dizziness in the famous stairway vortex. But nope. Nada.


However, twenty-some years ago I did see a jinn. Djinn. Genie. At least I think I did. It was in a Dubai hotel room on a business trip to vet translation vendors for the Arabic and Hebrew versions of Windows. I was jet lagged, under slept, punchy with exhaustion but too tired to sleep. I turned off the light and sat down to try to meditate myself out of the thrumming hyperactivity of my brain.


As soon as the light went out, I saw something flying around the room. It was a head and shoulders, the rest of the body trailing away to a tapered nothing. The face was genderless, but the hair was long, very long, and wild and red. It was dark, but I could tell the hair was red. The body, by the way, was not blue, which is how so many versions of jinns appear for some reason. Disney, I expect. I didn’t sense malevolence, but it didn’t seem particularly friendly, either.


A few swoops around the room, then it was gone.


It was disturbing for sure, not least because I thought I might have been hallucinating – a real possibility, given my state of mind. But I didn’t have a reference for the jinn, consciously, at least. Once home, I did some research. The history of the jinn is fascinating and varied, and I can’t possibly get into it here, but what I saw fit the bill. At the time, my previous concept of a genie was Barbara Eden in harem pants. Yep – dating myself, there.


So…did I see a spirit that night in Dubai? Maybe. Heaven knows lots of people believe in ghosts or other presences, and I can’t help but wonder about the possibility of other planes of existence that we humans simply aren’t aware of.


What do you think? Have you seen or felt any kind of ghost or spirit? Do you believe in them? Do tell!


Thanks for letting me visit, everyone! It’s been a pleasure. For more information about me and my books, check out

Bailey Cates writes the New York Times bestselling Magical Bakery Mysteries. As Bailey Cattrell, she also writes the Enchanted Garden Mysteries featuring aromatherapist Elliana Allbright. Bailey writes, gardens, cooks, and hikes in northern Colorado where she lives with her guy and Cheesecat the Orange.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Making It Your Own by Vicki Delany

Jenn McKinlay: Confession time. I am a Sherlockian or a Holmesian, depending upon your preference. Either way, I'm a huge fan of all things Sherlock Holmes so it's unsurprising that I'm delighted to see Vicki Delany's latest Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery is hitting the shelves on Jan 11th!!! Just look at that cover! Fabulous!



 Vicki Delany: There’s no such thing as an original idea. It’s all been done before. Some people say there are 32 basic plots. Some say there are two – a person goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town. 

I say it doesn’t matter. You might not be able to come up with a truly original idea, but the trick to writing is to take what’s been done before, and make it your own. 

Say you have an idea for a great tale: A fatherless boy is secretly watched over by a wise older man of unspecified power, and the boy eventually takes his rightful position as a person of great importance. 

Harry Potter, King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins. They all follow the same basic outline, but each story is individualized when the teller makes it their own. (Why the standard trope always features a boy and a man, is an article for another day). 

Think of Sherlock Holmes. It would probably be impossible to count the number of Sherlock Holmes pastiche characters out there. Sherlock first appeared in 1887 and over the years since he not only continues to be relevant but has grown and spread immeasurably. 

What is it about Sherlock Holmes that has captured the popular imagination arguably more than any other figure in fiction? Is it his incredible intellect that has us all enthralled? Is it the gaslight streets, the long dresses, frock coats and top hats? Maybe it’s the sometimes-stiff, formal language. Is it Dr. John Watson himself, ever confused but always loyal, or the simple friendship between two such different men? 

Regardless of the reason, there’s no doubting the continuing popularity of the Great Detective and the attempts to imitate or recreate him. 

As I have done, with Gemma Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium. Gemma owns the shop, but she is also the Sherlock character. She’s my attempt to reimagine the Great Detective as a modern young woman. At her side is Jayne Wilson, ever confused but always loyal. 

Running a bookstore, keeping up with friends, and trying to have a love life doesn’t make it easy to be a consulting detective. But, as Gemma constantly says, she isn’t actually a consulting detective. In true cozy fashion however, she seems to just fall into situations. 

I took an old idea, a non-original character, and changed and adapted it to make it my own. 

The situations Gemma and Jayne find themselves in don’t have to be original ideas either. In the latest in the series, A Three Book Problem, they’re hired to feed and entertain guests at a recreation of a Victorian English Country House Weekend. 

In the manner of Agatha Christie or Naigo Marsh, the guests gather at the secretive mansion, the servants move silently and efficiently around the house, guests tour the expansive grounds, tensions explode, secrets are revealed. And someone is murdered! There is a limited circle of suspects – the killer can only be a guest or servant who was in the house for the special weekend. The detective searches for clues and studies the suspects. She reaches the conclusion through an intense study of personalities and actions. No need for forensic analyses, record checks, tracing cell phone signals here. 

Once I had the bones of the story (the unoriginal idea, if you will) I made it my own. I created the characters and set the plot in motion. I gave them all secrets and reasons to be in that house. It is certainly my intention that no one will be able to figure out the killer or the motive because they’re read it someplace else! 

The stories we love the most, whether of the fatherless boy or the Great Detective, continue to inspire writers to adapt, to improvise, to create new and more modern versions for new generations of readers to enjoy. 

Make it your own. 

I’d love to know -- what recreated plots or characters you love? Or hate. Because yes, some don’t deserve to be resurrected!

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Catskill Summer Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books,  and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane. 

Vicki is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Vicki is the recipient of the 2019 Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.  

The latest in Vicki’s Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series is A Three Book Problem(Crooked Lane Books, January 2022) 

Friday, January 7, 2022

When Covid Comes to Town by Jenn McKinlay

FIRST the winner of Lynn Cahoon's ebook giveaway is Libby Dodd! Congrats, Libby! Send your email address to Lynn at: 

and she'll sent your ebook!

Jenn McKinlay: You just don't think it's going to happen to you until the nasal swab says "You got the 'rona!" 

To clarify, this hasn't happened to me...yet. But two of my people are down and out with it. High fever, chills, sore throat, cough - otherwise known as "the works". One is already shaking it off but the other, a severe asthmatic, is laid low. I am spending my days away from home and cocooning myself in my office at night just in case someone needs an emergency ride to the ER. 

This is not how I pictured 2022 rolling out. When I picked the word "persist" as my word for the year, I wasn't issuing the universe a challenge. Sheesh! 

Still, if the past two years have taught me anything, it's that the Dalai Lama is right and we have to treat each other better than we have been. We have to start caring for strangers as we would our most precious loved ones and act accordingly.

Because, as I mentioned, one of us is a severe asthmatic, we got vaxxed and boosted as soon as we could, and have continued to wear masks in public and at work and school. Unfortunately the current strain of Covid is like a wildfire, hopping from house to house and burning everything in its path.

I am not a worrier by nature but I'm not gonna lie, when I look at my loved ones suffering high fevers and painful coughs and struggling to breathe, I'm nervous. Some thoughtless knucklehead brought this plague to work and infected my people. I've dealt with a lot of loss over the past two years, and I'm really not up for anymore. Really. Not. Up. For. It.

So, I'm going to go rogue here -- the Jungle Reds are by and large a sanctuary of non touchy subjects (mask - no mask - vax - no vax - what have you) but I'm going to have to go there -- and ask all of you to be careful out there. 

We value you as our friends, our community, and we would miss any of you should we lose you to this stupid plague. And so I ask you to please think about yourself, your loved ones, your friends, your neighbors and even the random stranger you don't know but who smiles at you just because, and consider what you can do to protect yourself and them, too. 

P.S. I'm writing this on Monday night so hopefully by the time it posts on Friday, we'll be in the clear or I'll be really sick - ugh! Yes, I'm posting my entire week right now in mid freak out. ACK!

Stay Well, Friends!