Friday, June 21, 2024

What We're Writing--Debs on Time Anchors

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've been thinking a lot this week about Hallie's Monday post on anachronisms and frames of reference. I always look up the most popular UK names for the years my characters were born, for instance, and I try to get music right for their time frames.

But because my series is long running and sort of floats in time, it's full of anachromisms for current readers. Many of these are unavoidably technological. I mentioned in a post last month that we've been watching Grey's Anatomy, which debuted in 2005. The show has aged remarkably well because the scope is so limited: the hospital, Meredith's house, the local bar. Oh, and everyone is in scrubs, which pretty much takes fashion out the equation. You may notice that the doctors are using Blackberries (remember those??) in the early seasons, but other than that the show could be set today.

It's not so easy to limit the world in novels, however, and as the first Gemma and Duncan book was published in 1993, there have been a lot of changes (not necessarily progress!) (Duncan has a phone attached to his car in the first book!)

I made a decision with that very first book that while every book would be contemporary, the characters would not age in real time like Ian Rankin's Rebus, who is forty in the first book and has now had to retire! So while three decades have passed in the "real" world, Duncan and Gemma and their family and friends have only aged about six years. (The ages of the children help me keep track of this.)

The snag in this system comes when you bring things into the story that are fixed in real time. I've tried to avoid it, but have goofed up a few times. A good deal of the plot of A FINER END revolves around the Millenium, for instance--ouch. But while I thought when I was writing NO MARK UPON HER that it would be glaringly obvious that Becca was training for the 2012 Olympics in London, now thankfully that seems a little fuzzier.

Despite my efforts (with a few slip ups) to write around things that so obviously date the books, some are unavoidable. Although I've decided that the pandemic (a very specific fixed point in time) didn't exist in my books, l must from now on refer to the King, not the Queen, etc., etc. It's all very tricky and I envy Rhys having control over how her characters fit into their historical framework!

Readers, do you notice these things? Or do they worry me more than than they bother you? 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

What We're Writing: Lucy's Throwing a Party

 LUCY BURDETTE: I’m deep into the first draft of Key West food critic mystery #15, as yet untitled and uncovered. You might remember that the book kicks off with the explosion of a boat off Mallory Square—the craft on which Hayley Snow and her mom and stepfather and many other Key West celebrities and characters are sailing.  Of course you’ll see a lot more about that event, but a second plot line runs alongside: the celebration of Miss Gloria’s 85th birthday. I love writing about parties and food in this series, woven around the murder investigations. I think it gives the reader (and me) a little break from the tragic events and consequences. The hat that Miss Gloria is wearing is like one that I bought for myself for a big birthday. (No it was not 85!)  

For once, my mother wasn’t having to cook all the food. She had insisted on preparing some hors d’oeuvres in advance—non-fussy dishes such as mounds of Key West pink shrimp, her famous cheese wafers, and a fancy Italian cheese, olives, and charcuterie board, so that Martha Hubbard could focus on the main course. Even with her cooking responsibilities minimalized, she’d been at the club house most of the afternoon to make sure the decorations were set up to her liking. The house looked even more stunning than usual, with glorious tropical flowers spilling out of their vases everywhere, amongst photos of Miss Gloria with her family and friends at all stages of life. Tables had been set up in the living room, dressed in white lace with pale pink napkins, good silver, and more flowers. Already the rooms felt alive with chattering guests, even though we’d had to make some hard decisions about the invitation list. Having lived on the island for over thirty years, my neighbor had befriended and was adored by a lot of people.

I found the guest of honor in the parlor, aka formerly the men’s smoking lounge. She looked adorable, positively radiant. We’d spent a lot of time last week trying out hair mousse and then combing her short white pixie so the little peaks stood up to her satisfaction. She pulled a fast one by showing me two different sweatsuits that she pretended to be choosing between, each of them baggy in the knees and elbows, though studded with her favorite rhinestones. In the end, she wore navy silk balloon pants, a white lace top, and a sparkling birthday crown with Birthday Princess written in sequins that I’d ordered for her on Etsy. It had roses and pink tulle scattered all over and glittery gold trim on the points of the crown. Wearing it, Miss Gloria reminded me of all the good fairies I’d imagined in my childhood. I hurried over to squeeze her into a hug and kiss her. 

“You little dickens,” I whispered. “All this time I worried you were wearing a saggy, faded old sweatsuit to your own party.”

“A gal has to have some secrets, even from you,” she said, her eyes sparkling with laughter. “It was fun to tease you and watch you be all careful and considerate of my awful taste.”

“You’re not only a dickens, you’re a little devil,” I said laughing and pulling her into another hug.

Question for readers: Do you enjoy nonstop, pulse-pounding action, or prefer to take a break sometimes with humor and fun?

Meanwhile, you can pre-order Lucy Burdette’s Kitchen (July 23) and A POISONOUS PALATE (August 6.)

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Rhys and Clare Champion Women's Rights.

 Rhys Bowen: Hallie’s post on Monday talked about anachronisms in novels. It’s something that drives me bonkers. To read about a character in Victorian times who says she’s stressed and needs to relax, who calls other people by their first name is such a red flag to me. (Freud hadn’t published at that time and mentioned those words).

So when Clare and I write our Molly books together we really work hard at getting everything right. Clare reads the New York Times for every day we write about. This gives a feel for not only what was happening, what the concerns of the time were, but attitudes and vocabulary.  Then we decide on our setting and I have books of photos of old New York, exteriors and interiors, maps. For the first Molly books I went to New York and walked anywhere that Molly walked, noting what one heard, smelled, felt.

Now we are writing Molly 22. (We don’t have a title yet, but like something like As We Go Marching On). The story actually presented itself from the time. We are up to fall 1909 and in New York there was a huge celebration called the Hudson-Fulton. It celebrated three hundred years since Henry Hudson discovered the river that bears his name and one hundred years since Fulton invented the paddle steamer and thus brought commerce to upstate New York. The whole city was strung with electric lights--still a novelty at the time.

The occasion was marked with impressive parades for two weeks—floats that rivaled the current Rose Parade and also a naval parade that stretched sixteen miles up the Hudson and included battleships from other nations as well as replicas of the original ships of Hudson and Fulton.

What struck us was that the committee was composed of 150 men. No women invited to give input in the design or composition of any parade. Not a single woman was invited to the opening banquet. And suffragists were not allowed to participate in the parade. At the same time suffragettes in England were being force-fed in British jails. So we had a story waiting to happen. What if suffragists were planning to disrupt a parade? And Molly was asked to spy on her friends? And what if something went wrong???

So we have the basis for our story and we’re just working out who is going to wind up dead and why. But we love featuring the suffrage movement because we are very conscious that half the population couldn’t vote at the time, that women were the property of their husbands. We are also conscious of women’s right being eroded at this moment so we hope the story will touch a nerve.

I just had a lovely letter from a fan who thanked me for opening her eyes to real history. She said she hadn’t enjoyed history in school but through my books she has learned so much and now wishes she had been a history major. I feel exactly the same way. I did not enjoy history in school. It was all about learn these dates and these battles and I got in trouble for asking how people went to the bathroom. I wasn’t being cheeky. I wanted to know.

I've learned so much from other writers: Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, Anne Perry... So do you feel the same way about historical novels? Do you enjoy learning new things as well as getting a good story?

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

What We're Writing: When A Mistake is the Answer

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s one of the scariest questions I’ve ever asked myself: what if I never have another good idea? I know I know, I have always had a good idea, the universe has never failed me, and all I really need is one.  

(The idea for ONE WRONG WORD came from a bit of dialogue I wrote in HER PERFECT LIFE.  So, hilariously, I got the idea from a fictional character. And a BIG bargain on it below!)

But I would like to put it out there, right now, that it would be very lovely if I got another new idea pretty soon. 

It’s funny, and I wonder if you’ve experienced this. The timing. A month ago, I was in the midst of editing my new book, and I searched my brain for a good idea for the next book. 

"Not time yet!" My brain saId. "Just keep editing." And I understood that was right, the timing was not correct yet. I was pushing, and I should’ve realized that it was too soon. Okay, then. 

I went back to editing.

And I cut 21,000 words!  And I'm still editing and polishing the rest.

A couple of weeks later, I inquired of the universe: is it time for the idea yet? "No,"  the universe said, "keep editing."

I knew that was correct, but still.... it was becoming worrisome. When you have a contract for multiple books, the deadline for the next one looms, closer and closer. 

When we were little kids, a year seemed like an extraordinarily long time, incalculably long, impossibly long. Now, a year is like – – oh, my goodness! That’s tomorrow

So I’m editing, editing, editing, deleting, try not to worry about the next idea, but focusing on this idea. The book I’m working on now.  It's called ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS.  (Which is due MONDAY. Just saying.)

It’s funny where this idea for ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS came from. 

It came from a mistake.

 I was doing a signing with another author at a local bookstore, which will remain nameless, and the proprietor sent me a gorgeous graphic for the event.

Well, it was gorgeous except that it had the title of my book wrong. Instead of THE HOUSE GUEST, they had made a graphic that said THE HOTEL GUEST.  

So I rolled my eyes, annoyed, and said to someone: "The book cover is right there! If they can’t even get the title right,  how is the event supposed to work?"

 And then I paused, and said, "You know, though, The Hotel Guest is  actually not a bad title. Too bad I already have THE HOUSE GUEST."

But somehow, that bad title did not leave me. What would a hotel guest have to do with a thriller? I wondered. What would happen to a hotel guest. Who would be a hotel guest, and why would they be one? And what might happen.

Oh, I thought, they find something in their room? What would they find in the room? And what would they do with it? And what might happen?  Then the next hotel room they are in, they find something too. Why?

Oh, I thought, that could really work. Who might be a repeat hotel guest?  Okay, traveling salesperson. A hotshot entrepreneur. A vacationer. Then I thought oh! An author on book tour.

Yes, yes, yes. And so ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS was  born, and more. And I will tell you more about it later. (You can be sure of that!) 

But what will happen next? What idea will emerge? My silly brain has recently come up with a terrific idea for a science-fiction novel. And a supremely perfect idea for a romcom.  

Thank you, universe, but I am still waiting for my next psychological thriller  idea. I trust you, though. It'll come.

I know Jenn touched on this last week, wondering where ideas came from. And someone in the comments suggested that everybody provide one element. Not a story, just one element that could be in a book. 

So let’s do that! And see if we can prime the pump. Reds and Readers, just tell me one thing.  

Like: a hotel room. A mysterious photograph. A back road in Maine. A vanilla ice cream cone. A fire alarm.  

Maybe we can all take the puzzle pieces, and mix them around, and we'll all  wind up with  something completely new.  I'll start: A phonograph record. A candle. A letter in the mail. A missing MFA student. 

And now, each of you add one more element or prompt to that. It doesn't have to connect.

And if a story pops into your brain, tell us that,too!

It would interesting, wouldn't it, so see what story we can make from the pieces you choose? Tell us just one line from the prompts like, oh, a medium who plays a certain record at her candle-lit seances, then gets a letter from a college with a surprising question.

But you can do better than that!

And one more thing in the cycles of a novel--my ONE WRONG WORD ebook is now, VERY VERY  briefly, on sale for $2.99!  (Just click on the title above.) Wherever you buy your ebooks.  If you don't have it, now's the time. (As I know you have heard me say: No pressure, it's just my career...)

So, Reds and readers! Tell us your story elements! And see if they spark any ideas.

Monday, June 17, 2024

One man's anachronism... What We're Writing


Anachronism: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned. Often an anachronism is an object misplaced in time.
HALLIE EPHRON here, kicking off WHAT WE’RE WRITING WEEK. My work in progress has three generations of women in it, so I try to keep in mind their three different frames of reference.

Their past shapes everything about them--how they dress, their memories, dreams, their word choice, frustrations and passions, and on and on.

For instance, the grandmother, a baby boomer, came of age in the 60s. She was a hippie who hung out in the Haight. Her granddaughter has no clue who Janis Joplin was. Her grandmother, in turn, has no idea who Megan Thee Stallion is. The granddaughter cringes when her grandmother talks about "dialing" the phone or "taping" a TV show.

 As I try to keep each of their frames of references sorted, I'm reminded of an article in the New Yorker entitled “Frame of Reference” written by John McPhee. He talks about going into a high school class of nineteen students and asking them to raise their hands if they recognize each name or place as he read it from a list of more than 50 items.

Here's his list - read it and mentally tick off the ones your recognize:
Woody Allen
Muhammad Ali
Joan Baez
James Boswell
David Brower
Richard Burton
Winston Churchill
Truman Capote
Jack Dempsey
Jackie Gleason
Hallmark cards
Samuel Johnson
Rupert Murdoch
Paul Newman
Vivien Leigh
Sophia Loren
Barack Obama
Laurence Olivier
Sarah Palin
George Plimpton
Princeton University
Norman Rockwell
Mickey Rooney
Mort Sahl
Barbra Streisand
David Susskind
Elizabeth Taylor
Time Magazine

If you're like me, you know them all. Well, almost all. (I had to look up David Brower. Shame on me for not knowing who he was.)

What about those high school students?

All nineteen of McPhee's ninth graders had heard of Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, Time Magazine, Hallmark cards, Denver, Mexico, Princeton University, Winston Churchill, “Hamlet,” and Toronto.

Eighteen had heard of Sarah Palin, Obama, Barbra Streisand, and Rolls-Royce. Seventeen Paul Newman. Eleven Elizabeth Taylor.

Only five had heard of Norman Rockwell, Truman Capote, or Joan Baez.

Three had heard of Rupert Murdoch, or Mickey Rooney.

Two had heard of Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier.

Just one for Vivien Leigh.

Not even a single one had heard of Jackie Gleason, David Brower, David Susskind, Jack Dempsey, George Plimpton, Sophia Loren, Mort Sahl, James Boswell, or Samuel Johnson.

I wondered how they’d do with Howdy Doody or Mark Rudd or Sandra Dee? Probably about as well as I do with today's musicians and actors who show up regularly in the New York Times crossword puzzle and in questions on Jeopardy.

Do you notice the characters' frames of reference in the books you're reading? Does it bother you when a character hums a rock 'n' roll tune in the 1950s or channels Abbott and Costello in the current day?

Sunday, June 16, 2024


Jenn McKinlay: Today I'm delighted to have a guest author who was recommended by my dear friend Hannah Dennison. When Hannah told me she had a guest for us, I knew it would be a good one as she's never steered me wrong. Please welcome the prize winning author and journalist, Jane Corry.


JANE: Nearly fifteen years ago, when running a writing group, I met someone who couldn’t talk after a stroke – but could sing her story instead. She stayed in my mind and emerged out of the blue when I wrote the first line of I DIED ON A TUESDAY. And so Janie was born: a young girl who was knocked off her bike and left for dead, just before she was leaving her seaside town to start a publishing job in London.

My ideas come like a floating feather. I don’t sit down and think ‘What can I write about?’  After the first feather, another follows and another  - rather like layers of millefeuille pastry. I try not to think too hard about them because if I don’t, another idea will come along – often when I’m not in a position to write it down, such as swimming in the sea.

I knew I wanted to write about an historic crime. I’m fascinated by the way in which a crime can be discovered, years after someone thinks they’ve buried it. Perhaps I should say here that I started my working life as a magazine journalist but then became a writer in residence of a high security male prison for three years after my divorce, when I needed money a regular income to bring up my three children. It changed my life. Until then, I’d had some romantic novels published but prison opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know about. 

Stories are often inspired by people you meet and through another area of my life, I was very moved by a woman who’d been a witness supporter – a voluntary role which involves looking after witnesses in court and showing them where to sit; explaining how court procedure works and metaphorically holding their hands. So Vanessa was born: my character whose dead husband had been the policeman in charge of Janie’s accident when the culprit was never found. 

Then along came Robbie. Robbie had been one of the 18-year-olds in the van which had knocked down Janie but didn’t stop. Twenty years later, those boys are famous musicians. ( I know a bit about this because my youngest is a music journalist: his podcast is called ‘101 Part-Time Jobs with Giles Bidder’ about jobs that musicians had before they were famous).  But suddenly new evidence comes up about the accident. Janie, Robbie and Vanessa each have different stories about the day of the accident. Which one is right?

I like to keep my readers guessing because I adore twists. But I am also in love with three-sided characters because no one is a stereotype: not the men I met in prison or the celebrities I’ve interviewed or you or me.  Of course, there’s another character who I’ve mentioned briefly. The sea. I was landlocked in outer London for the first fifty years of my life until I married the best man from my first wedding (long story) and escaped to the sea. It’s where I belong. I hope you enjoy the waves I’ve tried to create in my plot and scenery. I

‘I DIED ON A TUESDAY’ is being published by Penguin Viking on June 6 on Kindle and in audio and on June 20th (paperback). You can also order ‘I DIED ON A TUESDAY’ by clicking Thank you.


You can also buy ‘COMING TO FIND YOU’, my 2024 novel about Nancy whose step-brother is sent to prison for murder.  The press believe Nancy was involved so they follow her to the family holiday home in Devon. But what no one knows is that during the Second World War, the owner Elizabeth was a secret spy for Churchill – and committed a terrible crime herself.  Can Nancy learn from a dead woman’s mistakes? You can order now on Amazon.

If you’d like to read more about my books, you can find details on  Thank you.

JENN: Thank you, Jane. These novels sound fabulous! Readers, what are some of your favorite plot twists?  

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Reframing the Negative by Jenn McKinlay


JENN MCKINLAY: At the end of last year, I found that I was in a bit of a funk. If you know me, this is not normal. My family, bless them, noticed and mentioned that I was not as obnoxiously cheerful or enthusiastic as I usually am. They did not seem so much alarmed as relieved but I'll let that slide for now.

I did some thinking about it and realized that I was spiraling into a negative head space and I wasn't enjoying the ride. Usually, I try to be like a duck and let things roll off my back but for some reason I was more like a porcupine and everything was sticking to my quills.

Frankly, being a woman of a certain age, I thought I was just metamorphosing into the classic crabby old lady like my idol Maxine.

But I think it's more that life has felt heavy on the negative and light on the positive for a reaaaaaaally long time and negativity is highly  contagious. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a great mood and then listened to the news, opened social media, or found myself in conversation with a person who was angry, depressed, etc and walked away unable to find my former great mood. Major bummer.

In an effort to reframe these experiences and not get sucked into the negative, I started trying different techniques to stop the negative vibe  before it started or divert it in a different direction. Obviously, it's impossible to be happy all the time but that doesn't mean it can't be contained. So here are some of the things I did to break the bummer pattern.

Cognitive Restructuring: Identify and challenge the negative thought. Replace it with a more balanced or positive thought.

Thought Stopping: Consciously say "stop" when a negative thought arises, then shift your focus to something positive.

Mindfulness Meditation: Practice staying present and observing your thoughts without judgment.

Deep Breathing: Use deep, slow breaths to calm your mind and body, reducing the impact of negative thoughts.

Gratitude Journaling: Write down things you're grateful for each day to shift your focus to positive aspects of your life.

Affirmations: Repeat positive affirmations to counter negative self-talk.

Exercise: Engage in physical activities like walking, running, or yoga to boost mood and reduce stress.

Art and Music: Use creative activities to express and transform negative emotions.

Writing: Journal about your thoughts and feelings to gain perspective and clarity.

Limit Negative Media: Reduce exposure to negative news and social media that can contribute to negative thinking.

Did they all work? No. But I found that a combination of the above for any given situation really did help me retain my normally optimistic outlook. 

Your turn, Reds and Readers, what do you do to turn off the negative and protect your peace? 

Friday, June 14, 2024

The garden is ALIVE! by Jenn McKinlay

 Punk rocker or Elvis? 

JENN McKINLAY: This was not my originally planned post for this day, but Hooligan 1 and I were thinning the lemon tree when we found this guy amongst the leaves. Y'all I have a punk rock mohawk wearing lemon! I know he looks like a lime, but he would have been a lemon if he hadn't been a part of the culling. I feel rather bad about that, actually. 

Of course, then I had to do a deep dive on wacky shaped things people have found in their gardens and so I share with you because starting the weekend with a laugh sets the tone, don't you think?

This eggplant looks like a therapist reserving judgment...barely.

A strawberry flutterby?
(Butterfly never made sense to me but flutterby does so that's sorted).

This radish looks like she's ready for the catwalk at fashion week.

Tomayto-tomahto, either is just ducky with this fella.

The pepper is in a fizz! The horror of being halved?

Perhaps potato bear and can hug it out with the pepper? LOL.

All right, Reds and Readers, what weird and wacky things have you found in your garden or the produce section of the grocery? 

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Missing Inspiration by Jenn McKinlay

 JENN McKINLAY: I am in the thick of writing proposals. This is the best part and the worst part of the writing process to me. Taking that kernel of an idea and crafting it into something that readers will love, always feels like landing at the base camp on Mount Everest. 

I love it when an idea comes out of the ether and fills my brain, taking over my every thought until I get the story down on the page. Unfortunately, this very rarely happens and it's much more likely to be an idea that goes nowhere, a notion that goes sideways, or a concept that tanks before it can become a fully realized PROPOSAL. 

One of the biggest challenges right now is that the industry is very saturated in romcoms and mysteries and what I hear repeatedly from the publishers and booksellers is that they want "the same but different". When I ask what they mean specifically, I am told that they don't know but they'll know it when they see it. As you can tell I have spent many an hour banging my forehead on my desk.


When things seem impossible, I do look behind me and remember that PARIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA came fully formed while I sat in my car waiting for a Hooligan while the SPRINKLE WITH MURDER arrived almost by happenstance when everywhere I looked there were cupcakes and everyone I spoke seemed to be talking about cupcakes and I just happened to be looking for a fresh angle on cozy mysteries. 


Since I am fresh out of inspiration, a very disconcerting place for me since finishing the cozy fantasy, I must ask both the Reds and the Readers, what do you do when your creative well is dry? Do you have a technique for kick-starting your brain or your creativity? In other words...HELP!

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Y'all, I'm a 7! by Jenn McKinlay

 JENN McKINLAY: If you read my post yesterday, you know I was recently at a reader author gathering called RAGT. One of the high points was spending time with my long time author friend Lori Wilde. Luckily for me, she is also a writing instructor and she graciously listened to me whine (and wine) about my recent issues in crafting "the same but different" romantic comedies.

We discussed various ways to break through my mental block and one of them was using the Enneagram Personality to test to help inform my characters and give them more natural conflict. She also advised me to take the test because she suspected I was a 7.

Naturally, I took the online test, which our assistant Christie Conlee found for me here: Enneagram Test

There are 9 personality types and the test tells you the strongest to the weakest in a handy pie chart (mine is below).

As you can see, I'm a 7 (Lori was totally right!) 9 and 3 for my strongest traits. Well, I read the descriptions -- enthusiast, peacemaker, achiever -- and thought WOW! That's me, totally me! 

Lori's point was that I could use the Enneagram to flesh out my characters and give them natural conflicts (which I struggle with because I generally like my characters and don't want to torture them) but as I read the descriptions of my personality traits, I realized THIS IS WHY I STRUGGLE WITH CONFLICT FOR MY CHARACTERS!!!  

The combo of enthusiast (always striving for positive experiences) followed by the peacemaker (always going with the flow to keep the peace) make it such a challenge for me to torture my characters as one must. This is why LOVE AT FIRST BOOK (aka the book that about killed me) was so difficult to write. I leaned into conflict and pain and, boy howdy, did that feel uncomfortable and difficult! 

So, now that I know this about myself, I feel as if a world of self-awareness has opened up for me and I can approach my writing much more intentionally (thank you, Lori!) and I can use it to craft characters who have authentic conflict. Straight up, I am super excited about this!!!

Your turn, Reds and Readers, have you taken a personality test (hit the link above if you want to) and what did you learn? Reds, do you use personality tests to inform your characters?