Guest Blogger Kathy Waller – Three Ways of Looking at Austin Mystery Writers or, Why I go to Critique Group
Three Ways of Looking at Austin Mystery Writers or, Why I Go to Critique Group by Kathy Waller
#1 Yesterday Dominica felt faint, and Molly, my protagonist, steered her to a bench on the courthouse lawn and then dithered over what to do. She couldn’t leave Dominica there to topple off the bench, but asking a passerby for help sounded lame, and there weren’t any passersby to ask. So there was poor Molly, needing more help than I could give her, stuck any way you looked at it. She stayed that way all night.
Today, talking about treatments for migraines, one of my critique partners took a bottle of peppermint oil from her purse and passed it around. At the first whiff, I said, “Molly suffers from migraines! She carries peppermint oil in her purse! She can use that to revive Dominica.”
In one fell swoop, I both saddled Molly with migraines and solved a knotty problem.
That is why I go to critique group.
#2 I said to my critique partners this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.
They said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part and the last part are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle and what there is stinks and anyway the other 5,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And they said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And they said, NO you can fix it just keep going because we like Molly she’s so funny.
This is why I go to critique group.
#3 So I finally got things together with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and today my critique group said it was fine. But…
“Nobody died,” said Kaye.
“I know,” I said. “It’s li-ter-a-ry.”
“But it’s crime fiction,” said Gale. “Somebody has to die.”
Laura and Valerie, sitting on the other side of the table, nodded. In unison.
“I was going for subtlety,” I said. “It’s a death of the spirit.”
They stared at me. I stared back.
“Somebody has to die,” said Kaye.
Then all four said they didn’t understand the last line. I had written the entire story so I could use that line, and no one understood what it meant.
I kept staring and thought about words like philistines, peasants, and bourgeoisie.
Finally I spoke. I said, “Thank you.”
Then my friends began throwing out ideas for endings they liked, in each of which someone died. I sighed and said, Yeahhhh, and, Okayyyy, and, I guessss…
Gad, they were irritating, telling the truth like that. Especially the way they all kept agreeing. Especially since I’d known the ending was bad before I let them read it.
And then Kaye said, XXX—and I thought, YYY—and everything fell into place: I knew who would die, and how, and why, and what would happen next…
And I thought, Kaye has given me the perfect ending. All the suggestions are good, but hers works on multiple levels. It’s so right. Why didn’t I think of it myself?
And then I thought, Oh, who cares about why. What matters was that Kaye thought of it, and shared it, and that she and three other writers not only told the truth but grabbed me by the lapels and made me listen.
I rewrote the story, and it was published in Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology, Murder on Wheels.
And that is why I go to critique group.
Every. Blessed. Week.
Kathy Waller’s A Nice Set of Wheels and Hell on Wheels appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology Murder on Wheels (Wildside Press, 2015). A former librarian, former teacher, former paralegal, and former pianist for a string of churches desperate for someone who could find middle C, Kathy was born and reared in a small (pop. 150) town in Central Texas, and as a result nearly everything she writes includes a river, a cow, or a group of old ladies playing dominoes on someone’s front porch.
Writing a Mystery Series by Rabbi Ilene Schneider
I write a cozy mystery series. They feature an amateur sleuth, Rabbi Aviva Cohen. All the sex and gore are off the page. There is humor. There is a lot of back story. There is a happy ending. They differ from other cozies in that there are a few expletive-deleted words that haven’t been deleted; as I explained to my mother when she complained, “That’s how aging baby boomers talk.” And none of the language is gratuitous. If you woke up in a hospital, with no idea how you got there, and can’t find your glasses, would you say, “Gosh darn it”? Neither does Aviva.
I decided to write a series because I am basically lazy. The books have the same protagonist and major characters. I don’t have to think up new ones for each book.
I’m making it sound as though I’ve published dozens of books. So far, there are two in print, with another in the works: CHANUKAH GUILT and UNLEAVENED DEAD are published by Oak Tree Press; the third, currently being written is YOM KILLER. I have, in my head, broad outlines and titles for an additional three: HIGH HOLY DAZE, SABBATH WHINE, and MATZAH BAWL.
But even with two (plus a bit) books written, I’ve realized there are difficulties with a series. In writing a series, you need to be able to provide enough background information for those who haven’t read the previous book(s), while not making it boring for those who have. Earlier events can be referred to, but only vaguely, so as not to give away the plot. Never write, “Mehitabel used to be my best friend, but she killed herself after realizing her lies and schemes were about to be revealed.” Instead, write, “I still miss my best friend Mehitabel, whom I didn’t know as well as I thought I had.” It will send them to the earlier book to find out what happened.
There has to be character development, especially if there was a life-altering situation in the earlier books. If the long estranged mother, after a near-death experience, realizes how much she has missed in her life by not seeing her now adult children in book one, don’t have her still be uninterested in reestablishing a relationship in book two.
You have to be consistent. If the new book is taking place two years after the first, don’t have the protagonist be younger. Or taller. If her eye color changes, mention contact lenses. If her hair color does, mention she got tired of the old one. To keep the characters straight, I have a file on the computer that lists them by book, with their ages at the time of the book, relationship to the protagonist and to other characters. I use control-f to search the older manuscripts for physical descriptions.
Finally, know when the series has come to its natural conclusion. You’ll know when (or should know) it’s time to end the series when you keep writing the same book.
As for me, I’ll know the series has run its course when I run out of titles.
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Award-winning author Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first six women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up. She has retired from her day job as a hospice spiritual support counselor to devote full time to writing.
Rabbi Schneider is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries, published by Oak Tree Press: Chanukah Guilt, which was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2007, was one of My Shelf’s 2007 Top Ten Reads, and was a Midwest Book Review Reviewers Choice Book; and Unleavened Dead, which won First Place from the Public Safety Writers Association, and was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2012. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine called Unleavened Dead “… a solid, funny mystery that provides an insider’s look at Jewish life.”
A resident of Marlton, NJ, near Philadelphia, she is working on the third book in the series, Yom Killer, and is also the author of the best-selling Talk Dirty Yiddish: Beyond Drek: The Curses, Slang, and Street Lingo You Need To Know When You Speak Yiddish, published by Adams Media. The Jewish Forward described Talk Dirty Yiddish as “Such a breezy, engaging book, I should be so lucky to write.”
Write what you know. A well know axiom for writers. But is it really a rule? Is it good advice? What the heck does it mean?
I can’t tell you how many times I have scratched my head thinking, okay, what do I know? I know about police work, having had a career in law enforcement. I know about horses, having loved and worked with them all my life. I apparently know about a few other things, as I give out a lot of advice. Or perhaps, as my mother often said, I just like to generalize without specific knowledge.
But try as I might, I can’t seem to want to write a book about those topics . . . not yet anyway. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think that write what you know means limiting your writing to topics or places or people you literally already know about. If it does, then a woman should never write from a man’s perspective; a person living in Alabama should never write about a setting in New York; and a fantasy writer should just stop.
I certainly did not know anything much about early religion or Turkey or Asperger’s when I got a bug to write a novel about Noah’s wife. I wanted to write the story, not as a religious retelling, but one that I, as a humanist, could belief might have really happened. It took four years to bring that story to life and almost as many for my newly released historical novel, ANGELS AT THE GATE (the story of Lot’s wife). The research involved did help me “know” about the land, the culture, and the archeological and geological evidence that existed in my time periods and locations. Even trips to Turkey and Israel, although enriching, can’t substitute for being there at the time and experiencing what my characters experienced. But then, of course, if I lived in the time of NOAH’S WIFE or ANGELS AT THE GATE, I would be several thousand years old. Not really practical.
I believe you should do whatever research is required to honor your pact as a writer with your reader and establish authority in your writing. Getting details “right” is important, but I don’t believe in limiting your imagination or subject matter. Actually, I think write what you know is about something else.
All writers are experts about one thing—what it is like from the inside to be a human being, specifically, to be you. Write what you know means drawing upon that experience. You may have never been raped or divorced or thrown over a cliff (and hopefully not), but you know fear, an aching heart, and the terror of falling. You know it. When your characters feel something or think something, you must draw from that well of knowledge inside you, dig for it if you need to. It is about opening yourself to yourself.
As a police officer I saw things and spoke to people who had been through terribly traumatic situations. I tried to empathize with them, but unless their pain connected in some way to a pain I could understand, I didn’t really feel it. When your characters cry, will it affect your readers? It will if they connect with the reader’s sorrow or pain in some remembered or imagined way. You don’t have to lose your mother to imagine that pain in a very personal way, and so that is almost a universal emotional connection (unless you hated your mother.) As a writer, you can remember or imagine what it was or would be like (for you) to experience something your characters experience. And that is when the magic happens, and you are writing what you know.
T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” When she retired as a captain, she took on Birmingham’s business improvement district (CAP) as the executive director. Both careers provide fodder for her writing, which has garnered several awards, including “Book of the Year for Historical Fiction” (ForeWord Reviews) for her debut novel Noah’s Wife. Her first non-fiction book, Last Chance for Justice, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. Her new historical novel about the story of Lot’s wife is Angels at the Gate. She loves traveling, especially to research her novels, and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.
Guest Blogger T.C. Lotempio – Can a Cat be Inspirational? Oh yes, especially if his name is ROCCO…..
I have always been an animal lover, especially of cats. When my calico died a few years ago, I went to the Clifton Animal Shelter and adopted a handsome tuxedo cat named ROCCO. It soon became apparent that he is the “boss” of my family, which includes three other cats! But never, in my wildest dreams, did I ever expect him to be the driving force behind our blog, http://www.catsbooksmorecats.blogspot.com, or end up as the star of his own mystery series!
Well – to clarify – the series isn’t named after ROCCO. He was just the inspiration for one of the main characters, a feisty tuxedo cat named Nick. Nick’s a cool cat, one with a sharp mind who likes to play SCRABBLE, and spell out clues so his human, Nora, can solve mysteries! Volume One in the Nick and Nora mystery series, MEOW IF ITS MURDER, came out December 2, and if you enjoy cozy mysteries featuring a cat that was inspired by a cat, maybe you’d like to give it a try.
Nora Charles doesn’t believe in fate, even if she is a crime reporter who shares a name with a character from The Thin Man. In fact, she’s moving back to Cruz, California, to have a quieter life. But after finding an online magazine eager for material, and a stray cat named Nick with a talent for detection, Nora’s not just reporting crimes again. She’s uncovering them…
Back in her hometown, Nora reconnects with old friends and makes some new ones, like Nick, the charming feline who seems determined to be her cat. But not everything about Cruz is friendly. Writing for a local online magazine, Nora investigates the curious death of socialite Lola Grainger. Though it was deemed an accident, Nora suspects foul play. And it seems that her cat does too.
Apparently, Nick used to belong to a P.I. who disappeared while investigating Lola Grainger’s death. The coincidence is spooky, but not as spooky as the clues Nick spells out for her with Scrabble letters—clues that lead her down an increasingly dangerous path. Whether fate put her on this case or not, solving it will take all of Nora’s wits, and maybe a few of Nick’s nine lives.
Granted, ROCCO wasn’t the only inspiration for the series – but he was and is a large part of it! And he reminds me, every day, in his own catly way…I mean, you would think HE wrote the book! Although….in many ways, I think he did. But let’s keep that OUR secret.
What are some things your pets do that inspire you to do different things? Leave a comment with your email address. I’ll pick two of the most interesting comments and send the commenters an autographed copy of “MEOW IF ITS MURDER” and a MEOW bookmark! And you can visit ROCCO (and me too) at our blog, http://www.catsbooksmorecats.blogspot.com, where we interview authors and have giveaways every month!
A lot of people would like to paint, and I’m no exception. In high school I had a close friend who painted, and I always wondered how well he did with it later in life. I took a run at it myself in those days and bombed badly. Much later I returned to it in a more methodical way and became fairly competent, but I didn’t quit my day job.
What I did learn from painting is that you have to see things differently. There were exercises where, for example, you’d paint a vase upside down. It helped to keep you from thinking of it as a vase––putting a name to it––only seeing the action of light and shadow on the surfaces, which is what you painted. Names come from a different part of the brain and they get in the way.
Later, I wondered whether seeing things differently be any use in solving a crime. My painter character, Paul Zacher, living in Mexico with his historian girlfriend, doesn’t think so when he’s asked to look into a murder by the widow of the victim. He knows he sees the relationships of curves and contours to each other, the different colors within the shadows on human skin. But what would he pick up at a crime scene that the police missed?
That’s the premise of my book, Twenty Centavos, the first of a series of mysteries involving Paul Zacher, his girlfriend Maya Sanchez, and their retired detective friend, Cody Williams. They are mostly set in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial mountain town in the center of México with a large expatriate population. I’ve lived there too for the past seven years.
At thirty-five, Paul is a guy with an irreverent sense of humor who does fairly well as a painter, showing at two galleries, and he likes his life. When the book begins, he is engaged in a series of nudes posed with statues of Mayan Gods against a jungle backdrop. The show he’s preparing for will be called Gods and Goddesses. Getting pulled into a criminal investigation, he finds himself at odds with the local police, and with himself as well, because he sometimes feels like a snoop. As an outgoing guy with an ironic sense of humor, he’s uncomfortable with his new need to be covert and even sneaky at times in order to solve a case.
When I began this book I was on a painting trip, driving down a long curving mountain road outside of Taos, New Mexico, when a scene came to me of a woman coming to pose for a nude portrait at a painter’s studio. She was not an experienced model, but wanted to preserve an image of herself in her prime at the age of twenty-eight. She was also wondering whether it might be fun to engage in a little rendezvous with the painter as well. He was an attractive guy and she knew he liked women.
As it developed, I turned this scene over and over in my mind and virtually memorized it. When I arrived at my hotel in Taos, I immediately sat down at my laptop and wrote it.
Paul Zacher, who already knew he was attracted to his new model, is nonetheless loyal to his Mexican girlfriend. As a painter, he views the naked body as landscape; hills and valleys, outcroppings of bush here and there. But even more, for him the studio is a place of discipline and concentration, and to get involved with a model means chaos. His reaction is complicated by the recollection of an earlier encounter where he had stumbled in the studio. Upon this model’s arrival, a fine misunderstanding follows.
Naturally, solving this case led to others. I found I was already working on the second book of the series, The Fifth Codex, even before I was finished revising Twenty Centavos.
Currently there are twelve published and another in process. They fall into two categories, artifact and relationship. Twenty Centavos is focused on ancient Mayan ceramics, and The Fifth Codex deals with the discovery of a fifth Maya book, where only four had been previously known. The fifth one, Strike Zone, is centered on the recovery of a skull cast from the remaining gold of the Aztecs in the days of the Conquest. These are the artifact books. The ninth concerns an attempt to steal Mexico’s greatest religious treasure, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Brushwork, the third of the series, is about revenge. Daddy’s Girl, Vanishing Act, and Identity Crisis focus on love, loss and greed.
This is a rewarding series to write. I love the backdrop of the upscale expat community in San Miguel, and the continuity and developing relationship of the three core characters. As with so many successful series books, these are the books I myself want to read.
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John Scherber, a Minnesota native, settled in México in 2007. He is the author of twelve Paul Zacher mysteries, (The Murder in México series), set in the old colonial hill town of San Miguel de Allende, as well as his three award-winning nonfiction accounts of the expatriate experience, San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart, Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path, and Living in San Miguel: The Heart of the Matter. In addition, two volumes of the Townshend Vampire Trilogy have appeared, and a paranormal thriller titled The Devil’s Workshop.
His work is known for its fast pace, irreverent humor, and light-hearted excursions into the worlds of art and antiques––always with an edge of suspense. Neither highbrow nor lowbrow, his books are written as entertainments and dedicated to the fun of reading. While he has acknowledged being no single one of his characters, he also admits to being all of them. Find John on Facebook and Twitter, and visit his website at: http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com
Crystallizing Your Book Idea . . . for Paranormal or Any Genre
By Debbie Herbert
I love paranormal romance because the possibility of magic tingles my creative drive and curiosity. The speculation that there might be something more to reality than can be perceived through our senses provides a natural “what if” environment writers need to create stories.
Plus – I’ve never outgrown my love of fairytales and mythology!
Not only do I write paranormal romance, my subject matter isn’t of the popular vampire or werewolf variety. I chose to write about mermaids. I’d completed three other novels (as yet still unpublished) before switching to mermaids and landing multiple contracts with Harlequin Nocturne for a series.
It all started with a dream. I was swimming in a deep body of water when I noticed a man dumping something from the side of a boat. Curious, I swam over. The man noticed me and his expression was so evil that it frightened me and I woke up. Like a typical writer, I started asking those ‘what if” questions: what if he were a killer? what if he was dumping a dead body? what if I were a mermaid and he caught me?
And from that one dream, I created a world in which a clan of mermaids secretly lived deep in an Alabama bayou.
Okay, great ideas are had by all writers. How do you begin the whole unwieldy process of stringing together thousands of words into an interesting, coherent story?
We all have our own process. I’m sharing mine today in the hopes it may spur you to try something different that might make it all a little easier or clearer.
My starting point is answering these three questions:
1. What is the HOOK or PREMISE? What makes your book unique? What’s it about? Just write one sentence – the shorter the better.
2. What is the GOOD VERSUS EVIL in my world? I think for paranormal writers, this is important. Are your supernatural beings seeking power or dominance over humans or other creatures? For mystery writers, it may be an evil killer versus potential victims that provides this conflict.
3. What are the STAKES? The stakes are huge in paranormal worlds – it is often no less than world upheaval or human subjugation to supernatural beings.
If I can grasp these, I can go on to develop character and romance ARCS and external and internal conflicts. The questions form my logline and blurb. This is how I start every book. It’s how my brain works. Here are some examples from my books:
1. CHARMS – How can a teenage witch help an immortal on the run from another enemy immortal? Note: In Immortal legends there is already a strong, built-in good versus evil theme. The hook was combining the worlds of witchcraft and immortals. Stakes: Control of immortals and humans by an evil warlock clan.
2. CHANGELING –What happens to a child kidnapped by fairies and raised by them? Good versus Evil is between two warring fairy worlds. Hook is the reverse fairy tale. Stakes – if bad fairies win upcoming battle with good fairies, humans will suffer from bad fairies.
3. FAMILIAR MAGIC – How can a magical cat help an outcast middle grade girl? The evil are the bullies. The Hook is that the book is written from a cat POV. Stakes: character and animal’s happiness and survival in MG school world.
4. SIREN’S SECRET – Hook: What would happen if a mermaid saw a serial killer dumping a body at sea? Good versus Evil – serial killer versus cops. Stakes: Killer could expose mermaid world and endanger their species.
5. SIREN’S TREASURE – What would happen if a mermaid was captured by modern-day pirates? Hook – treasure hunt. Good versus evil – kidnappers versus law enforcement. Stakes: Missing H-bomb captured by American enemies. Stakes: World peace.
6. SIREN’S CALL – What would happen if a siren met a man not affected by her magic? Hook – hidden world of Okwa Nahallo – (Choctaw legend of mermaids in the bayou) and Indian lore. Good versus Evil: Female stalker versus cops. Stakes: Main character’s life and happiness of hero – prevention of future murders.
Once you’ve answered these questions you can go about the nitty gritty details of plotting your book. I’m pretty low tech. I get a posterboard and divide it into 20 sections which represent each chapter. I fill in the turning points and any scenes that have come to mind. I don’t worry about filling every square, I just fill in what I have and GO.
How do you begin your novels? I’d love to hear your process as well!
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Debbie Herbert writes paranormal romance novels reflecting her belief that love, like magic, casts its own spell of enchantment. She’s always been fascinated by magic, romance and gothic stories.
Married and living in Alabama, she roots for the Crimson Tide football team. Unlike the mermaid characters in Siren’s Secret, and Siren’s Treasure, she loves cats and has two spoiled feline companions. When not working on her upcoming books, Debbie enjoys recumbent bicycling with her husband as well as spending time with her two adult sons.
A past Maggie finalist in both Young Adult & Paranormal Romance, she’s a member of the Georgia Romance Writers of America. Debbie has a degree in English (Berry College, GA) and a master’s in Library Studies (University of Alabama).
Connect with Debbie on social media or learn more about her books.
http://goo.gl/cdgxFT – buy link for Siren’s Secret
http://goo.gl/ymsQdL – buy link for Siren’s Treasure
Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Debbie-Herbert-Author/151793451695632 Debbie Herbert Author