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.
A Perfect Place for Murder by Tracy Weber
I enjoy getting fresh air and exercise while scanning for wildlife, including turtles, squirrels, geese, raccoons, and blue herons.
In the summer, the area near the lake’s shore is smothered with lily pads; its surface, dotted by boats. The path around its circumference is crowded with thousands of locals who flock to it each day. What better place to plot murder!
When yoga teacher/sleuth Kate Davidson agrees to teach a Doga (yoga for dogs) class at Greenlake, she has no idea that the area will soon be the site of a murder. In the excerpt below, Kate witnesses an argument between two women hidden behind a stack of paddleboats.
Excerpt from Karma’s a Killer
Yoga instructor Kate Davidson is about to discover that when it comes to murder, there’s no place like om. When she agrees to teach doga—yoga for dogs—at a fundraiser for Dogma, a local animal rescue, Kate believes the only real damage will be to her reputation. But when an animal rights protest at the event leads to a suspicious fire and a drowning, a few downward-facing dogs will be the least of Kate’s problems…
Tracy Weber is the author of the award-winning Downward Dog Mysteries series. The first book in the series, Murder Strikes a Pose, won the Maxwell Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Agatha award for Best First Novel.
Holiday Happiness. Happy holidays. One and the same? Not by a longshot.
The phrasing of “holiday happiness” and happy holidays” is the difference between a state of being versus a wish. Not everyone has the opportunity or the desire to experience either.
During the past the few weeks, everywhere I went, people told me “Happy Chanukah,” “Merry Christmas,” “Have a Happy New Year,” “Seasons Greetings,” or “Happy Holidays.” TV commercials advertised joyful times, products for sale, and also wished me some form of a “Happy Holidays.” Radio music, that began blaring on our local Christmas channel before Thanksgiving, set the stage and mood by having lyrics that sent a subliminal “Happy Holidays” message.
I got it. I participated. Even when I felt most Grinch like, I responded or automatically was the first to let one of these phrases roll from my lips. Why? Because no matter how one feels inside, one has been conditioned to share a prayer for others to have a “Happy Holidays.” It is the right thing to do. In fact, it is the only thing to do.
No matter how many times we say these words, they aren’t necessarily going to result in an individual experiencing “Holiday Happiness.” We hope it will, but we can’t count on it. The world and life isn’t always perfect. Parents, friends, and other family members may be ill, aging, or dying during this period of the year. Some people may be short of money, have problems with jobs, co-workers or lack of employment, and some are simply without the economic resources for food and shelter.
Like the wishes for “Happy Holidays,” words of platitude and caring are expressed. People make donations of food, money, and gift items in the hope of improving the holidays for others. Many feel good giving something that brings “Holiday Happiness” to others. Not only does it make a difference in the recipient’s life, but it warms the heart of the giver.
I am a realist. There have been years that I have felt the joy of “Holiday Happines” and other times where the holiday season has been meaningless. Last year was tinged by the loss of my mother. This year, with a book coming out in April and two stories published during the December holiday period, it has been an up time professionally. With anticipated weddings, visits to children, grandchildren and granddogs, and other planned trips with family and friends, I look forward to an exciting and wonderful 2016 for my loved ones and me.
Not all of you who read this message will experience the perfect definition of “Holiday Happiness,” but at least I can wish and pray for it for you. May the remainder of the holiday season and the upcoming year be one of health, happiness and prosperity. “Happy Holidays!”
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.”
Earlier this month, I participated in an unusual panel at Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina. The panel’s topic wasn’t unusual—these days, most mystery conferences devote at least one panel to young adult novels—but the panelists were. Three of them were real, live young adults, members of a high-school book club in Georgia. They brought along a list titled “Ten Things We Wish YA Writers and Editors and Publishers Knew about Actual YAs (Like Us).” As a writer whose first YA mystery was just published, I found the list both enlightening and reassuring. Parents and grandparents who give books to the young adults in their lives might enjoy checking it out, too.
Some items on the list are predictable—the club members like a diverse cast of characters, they don’t like having pets or young children put in jeopardy simply to heighten tension, and they think it’s important for YA writers to “talk to young people alive and young right now,” rather than relying on decades-old memories. Preachy mysteries don’t appeal to them—“We can smell a lesson a mile away”—but mysteries that mix serious issues with humor do. The club members also want writers to “treat YA mysteries as seriously as adult mysteries.” That means playing fair with clues, not introducing villains at the last minute, avoiding plot holes, and tying up loose ends. As someone who loves traditional whodunits, I was glad to see that some young people still value these time-honored standards.
The list also includes less predictable advice. The club members don’t see romance as a necessary element in YA mysteries, especially not if it seems injected into the book “just to create a relationship subplot.” The characters’ attraction to each other has to feel genuine. Also, not every protagonist has to be a “misunderstood loner,” and “not all characters need a tragic backstory.”
That was good to hear. Misunderstood loners with tragic backstories are so common in YA fiction that I worried about whether young readers would care about my protagonist, a popular athlete with an intact family. When I was planning the novel, I wondered if I should give Matt a dead parent, an addicted sibling, at least a lactose-intolerant cousin. I decided against it, and now I feel more confident about that decision. Of course Matt’s family has problems—all families do. Matt feels distant from his parents and thinks they won’t understand his problems, and they’re so intent on making him feel secure that they hide the challenges they’re facing. But they’re all good, well-intentioned people, and they all love each other. Once they start talking more openly, things get better—not suddenly, completely better, but better. I hope the novel succeeds in acknowledging that the problems young adults experience can be painful and real, even when those young adults aren’t misunderstood loners with tragic backstories.
I also felt cheered by the second item on the club’s list. “Adults are not always evil/boring/patronizing/incompetent,” these young people maintain. “We live with adults, and we actually care about them and sometimes even like them. And we have people in our lives who care about us.” Frankly, I hadn’t expected a group of teenagers to take a stand on behalf of the adults in their lives, but I was moved when they did. It made me feel pretty good not only as a YA author but also as a teacher, a mother, and a grandmother. If you’d like to see the full list, you can find it here: http://ccatmystery.blogspot.com/2015/10/ten-things-we-wish-ya-writers-and.html. It might make you feel pretty good, too.
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B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults, which was recently released by The Poisoned Pencil / Poisoned Pen Press. She describes the novel as “a cross between The Hardy Boys and The Karate Kid.” Interpretation of Murder, a novel for adults, is a traditional whodunit that offers insights into deaf culture and sign language interpretation. . B.K. has also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She has won a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com
The Need for Stories by Sandra Carey Cody
“We’re always the same age inside.” Gertrude Stein
The Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor mysteries are set in a retirement community and the characters are a variety of ages. The youngest is Jennie’s six-year-old son; the oldest is a ninety-pound, ninety-something, feisty southern belle who still thinks like a teenager. Other characters run the gamut of ages.
The inspiration for this setting came from a bittersweet time in my life. My mother and one of my aunts lived in a facility similar to my fictional Riverview Manor. Their health had deteriorated to the point where it was impossible for the family to care for them. I won’t go into the anguish involved in this decision; that’s not what this is about. This is about … well, you’ll see.
I visited Mom and Aunt Hedy fairly often in their new surroundings and, as an unexpected bonus, spent time with some of the other residents. Most of them were also in poor health and no longer physically active. They were old. Very old. That’s all I saw at first but, as I got to know them better, I learned to look beyond their physical limitations. I started to listen – really listen – and I saw the young person they still were inside. I realized they each had a story and what they wanted most was someone to tell their story to. They were all individuals, came from different backgrounds, but each had a story to tell.
Are any of these people in my books? Not really. My characters are cobbled together from bits and pieces of a lot of people, myself included. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Nate, an 84-year-old retired actor who was and, in his own mind, still is, one of the finest interpreters of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes to ever grace the stage. Nate “struts and frets” a lot, demanding more than his share of attention. He’s not a nice man. He does and says the mean-spirited things most of us don’t allow ourselves to do or say. Maybe that’s why I created him. Writing scenes for Nate gives me a place to put out my own mean-spirited impulses. Turning those impulses into fiction forces me to examine and (hopefully) understand them.
That’s one of the reasons we need stories, both as readers and writers. In fiction, we meet people who are of another world, sometimes another generation. Their experiences may be different from ours, but when we hear their story, we begin to understand them and, if we listen – really listen – we see past the differences and realize how alike we are inside.
My characters aren’t real and Riverview Manor isn’t much like the place that inspired it. It’s a mythical place where all problems have a solution and there’s always someone who wants to hear your story. And isn’t that what we all want? Some to listen to our story.
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Sandra Carey Cody was born and grew in Missouri, surrounded by people who loved stories, whether from a book or told on the back porch on a Sunday afternoon. She now lives in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. Wherever she’s gone, books have been the bridge to her new community and new friends. Being the quiet member of a noisy family, her story-telling manifested itself in writing, mostly crime fiction. If you would like to know more, you can visit her website: www.sandracareycody.com or her blog: www.birthofanovel.wordpress.com