Posts Tagged ‘Guest Blogs’

Guest Blog: The Writer’s Life Isn’t for Sissies by Marilyn Levinson

Marilyn Levinson-Author

Marilyn Levinson-Author

The Writer’s Life Isn’t for Sissies by Marilyn Levinson

The electronic age has made it easy for anyone to self-publish a work of fiction. All you have to do is write a book. It needn’t be approved, edited or even good. As long as the text is formatted correctly, up it goes on Amazon and other publishing sites. And voilà! You’re an author.

Perhaps, but who’s going to buy your book besides your nearest and dearest? Who is your audience? Where are your readers? And what do you plan to write about in your next book?

Because so many people are writing novels these days, it’s difficult for a writer to make his or her mark in today’s literary marketplace. There are many choices. Writers can self-publish, publish with small presses, or publish with the bigCF - Murder a la Christie 150 companies. I know, because I’ve gone the route of all three. We’ve an over-abundance of available books because so many writers give away e-copies of their work, hoping that this will entice readers to buy their other titles. Every day I receive several emails encouraging me to download novels that are inexpensive or free. Which is why I have close to 600 novels on my Kindle, waiting to be read.

This proliferation of novels gives the impression that becoming a novelist is easy. That anyone can write a good book that will sell thousands of copies. It’s not so. Becoming a good fiction writer is a process that takes years of hard work. Sure there are a few exceptions, but I believe the more books we write, the better skilled we become at creating characters, weaving plots, and telling satisfying stories. In The Telegraph on June 29th, best-selling crime writer, Val McDermid, “has claimed that she would be a failed novelist if she were starting out today because the publishing industry no longer allows for slow-burning careers.”

“It takes a strong stomach to be a writer!” says Peg Cochran, who writes the Gourmet de Lite series under her name and the Sweet Nothings Lingerie Series as Peg London. “It’s a scary business putting yourself out there…not only am I nervous about not living up to other authors, I’m worried about living up to myself!”

Peg isn’t alone. As a mystery writer, I know I’m only as good as my last book. I hope readers will like my next book. Will they love my characters? Will the plot hold? Will they detect the murderer before I want them to?

levinson picture1And it’s not enough to write an enticing mystery. Unless you’re very successful, very famous, or both, most mystery writers I know spend a good deal of time promoting their work. I was delighted that my mystery, A Murderer Among Us, was listed on Book Town’s 2014 Summer Reading list, and that A Murderer Among Us & Murder a la Christie made Book Town’s 2014 Summer Mystery Reading List. Then it was up to me to tweet and announce these honors to my Facebook and Yahoo groups. I must seek reviews of my books and ask to have my books featured on various sites and blogs. It’s my job to promote my novels and tend to them as I would my children, making sure they’re in healthy, growth-producing after-school activities. The odd thing is, I never know what helps improve my sales, but I get the word out when my books receive 5 star reviews and accolades.

Reviews are something else we authors have to deal with. Good reviews are wonderful to read. We’re delighted that readers are enjoying our books, and happy that they “get” us. Eventually we all get the other kind of review. The not so great review or even a hurtful review from a reader who was less than satisfied.

We’re told not to respond to reviews that are cutting or cruel, or even inaccurate. This is levinson 2frustrating, but I try to concentrate on the good reviews and the many people who have made it a point of telling me they enjoy my books. I’ve checked out the reviews of well-known novelists and was surprised to see that they had their share of not so great reviews. It gave me heart to know that these authors still sell thousands of copies of their novels. It reminded me that not everyone is going to love my work.

Having a writing career means finishing a novel and moving on to the next. It demands hours of promotion, dealing with deadlines and edits and covers you may not like. Coping with changing editors, an editor who changes your every other word, rejection. You name it. There are many frustrations, but having a writing career means you’re doing what you love best—writing.

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A former Spanish teacher, Marilyn Levinson writes mysteries, romantic suspense, and books for kids.

Her latest mystery, Murder a la Christie, is out with Oak Tree Press. Untreed Reads has brought out new e-editions of her first Twin Lakes mystery, A Murderer Among Us–a Suspense Magazine Best Indie and its sequel, Murder in the Air. Both Murder a la Christie and A Murderer Among Us are on Book Town’s 2014 Summer Reading Mystery List. Her ghost mystery, Giving Up the Ghost, and her romantic suspense, Dangerous Relations, are out with Uncial Press. All of her mysteries take place on Long Island, where she lives.

Her books for young readers include No Boys Allowed; Rufus and Magic Run Amok, which was awarded a Children’s Choice; Getting Back to Normal, & And Don’t Bring Jeremy.

Marilyn loves traveling, reading, knitting, doing Sudoku, and visiting with her granddaughter, Olivia, on FaceTime. She is co-founder and past president of the Long Island chapter of Sisters in Crime. She can be contacted through her website  For all of her writings, check out her Amazon page at .


Guest Blogger Linda Rodriguez: What Can We Learn From the Century’s Bestsellers

April 21, 2014 6 comments
Linda Rodriguez

Linda Rodriguez

What Can We Learn From the Century’s Bestsellers by Linda Rodriguez

Matt Kahn is a blogger with an unusual idea. He is reading the 94 books that have been listed as the year’s bestseller by Publishers Weekly for each year of the 100 years since PW began announcing the bestselling book of each year.

The list below comes from his blog. It’s eye-opening, I believe, to see what outsold all other books each year. Fifteen books on the list are books that still live, excepting the most recent years for which we have no real knowledge yet of which books will live on and which will sink into oblivion. If we knock off the last ten years’ books for that reason, that still leaves us with only fifteen out of eighty-four. Most of these books are unknown in the present day. Modern readers may know who H.G. Wells and Zane Grey are, but most will never have heard of Mr. Britling Sees It Through, The U. P. Trail, or The Man of the Forest. Other authors, such as Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, A.S.M. Hutchinson, and Henry Morton Robinson, will be unrecognizable to today’s readers.

What can we learn from this list then? One thing we can learn is that bestseller status doesn’t necessarily mean that the books are the best for their time—or even good. A second is that many great books don’t ever make the top bestsellers list. Missing are all of Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s, and they were both Nobel Prize winners. Also, you won’t find Fitzgerald’s, Willa Cather’s, Henry James’, Edith Wharton’s, Harper Lee’s, Truman Capote’s, and Kurt Vonnegut’s titles, to mention just a few writers with major literary reputations. A third lesson is that—witness the books listed for Wells and Grey—a writer may write his finest books without such success and then find a lesser book on the list by virtue of the quality of those earlier volumes.

The final take-away is that all of this is out of the author’s control. All we can do is write the best books we can. When I get discouraged at the difficulty of bringing my books to the attention of readers, I pull this list out and read and note the significant omissions.every hidden fear (1)

Publishers Weekly Annual Bestsellers List                                                                                                                    

• 1913: The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
• 1914: The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
• 1915: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington
• 1916: Seventeen by Booth Tarkington
• 1917: Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells
• 1918: The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey
• 1919: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
• 1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
• 1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
• 1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
• 1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton

•  1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
• 1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
• 1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
• 1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
• 1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
• 1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
• 1930: Cimarron by Edna Ferber
• 1931: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
• 1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
• 1933: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
• 1934: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
• 1935: Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas
• 1936: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
• 1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
• 1938: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
• 1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
• 1940: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
• 1941: The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin
• 1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel
• 1943: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
• 1944: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
• 1945: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
• 1946: The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier
• 1947: The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney
• 1948: The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas
• 1949: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
• 1950: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
• 1951: From Here to Eternity by James Jones
• 1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain
• 1953: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
• 1954: Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson
• 1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
• 1956: Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley
• 1957: By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens
• 1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
• 1959: Exodus by Leon Uris
• 1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
• 1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
• 1962: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
• 1963: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West
• 1964: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
• 1965: The Source by James A. Michener
• 1966: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
• 1967: The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
• 1968: Airport by Arthur Hailey
• 1969: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
• 1970: Love Story by Erich Segal
• 1971: Wheels by Arthur Hailey
• 1972: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
• 1973: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
• 1974: Centennial by James A. Michener
• 1975: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
• 1976: Trinity by Leon Uris
• 1977: The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
• 1978: Chesapeake by James A. Michener
• 1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
• 1980: The Covenant by James A. Michener
• 1981: Noble House by James Clavell
• 1982: E.T., The Extraterrestrial by William Kotzwinkle
• 1983: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn
• 1984: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
• 1985: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
• 1986: It by Stephen King
• 1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
• 1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
• 1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
• 1990: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
• 1991: Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley
• 1992: Dolores Clairborne by Stephen King
• 1993: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
• 1994: The Chamber by John Grisham
• 1995: The Rainmaker by John Grisham
• 1996: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
• 1997: The Partner by John Grisham
• 1998: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
• 1999: The Testament by John Grisham
• 2000: The Brethren by John Grisham
• 2001: Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
• 2002: The Summons by John Grisham
• 2003: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown**
• 2004: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
• 2005: The Broker by John Grisham
• 2006: For One More Day by Mitch Albom
• 2007: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini**
• 2008: The Appeal by John Grisham
• 2009: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
• 2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson
• 2011: The Litigators by John Grisham
• 2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
• 2013: To be determined…

* Publishers Weekly did not include the Harry Potter books in its listings. Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix was the bestselling book for 2003, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the bestselling book of 2007.

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Linda Rodriguez’s third Skeet Bannion novel, Every Hidden Fear, will be published May 6 and is available for pre-order now. Her second Skeet mystery, Every Broken Trust, was a selection of Las Comadres National Latino Book Club and is currently a finalist for both the International Latino Book Award and the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize. Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, and was a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” has been optioned for film. Find her on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda, on Facebook at, and on blogs with The Stiletto Gang http:, Writers Who Kill, and her own blog

Guest Blogger: Carol Robbins – Enticing the Muse

March 10, 2014 6 comments
Author Carol Robbins

Author Carol Robbins

Enticing the Muse by Carol Robbins

I envy writers who say “It just came to me, the whole book. All I had to do was write it down.” From what I hear, that doesn’t happen for many of us. The muse is illusive, sometimes staying away no matter how desperately we long for a visit. So how might we attract the muse?

When I was an art student, a professor teaching a class in drawing urged me to be ready through disciplined practice, reminding me that the production of outstanding work would not happen without the basic skills. On the days when the muse didn’t show up, rather than doing nothing I was to practice, to hone my skills. Clay fascinated me. Although not my main medium, I may have learned my most important lesson from it. One day at the wheel I felt like I was truly “in the flow,” one with the clay, with everything. It was an exhilarating experience that I’ve rarely been able to duplicate. I’ve tried to analyze what happened that day. I’d prepared following what I’d learned, from arranging my tools, preparing the clay, to throwing the pot. The sequence of steps that I had done over and over, almost like a ritual, made it possible not just to create the piece, but to feel that flow.

So how does any of this apply to writing? I think the process is much the same. We have to learn the basics whether it be through classes, workshops, reading, or other methods. Then we must establish a routine for writing, preferably daily or at least several times a week, putting in the time that leads us to the outpouring of words.

Perhaps you noticed, when relating the experience with the clay, I stopped at the forming of the vessel. Simply forming a lump of clay into a vessel was not the end of the process. The pot had to be dried, trimmed, bisque fired, glazed, and fired again before it was finished. Likewise, even if the muse visits us with divine inspiration, we’re expected to edit and polish. The muse can be fickle, and rarely visits if we don’t do our part in preparation or if, once given the gift, we won’t finish the job.

So how do we entice a visit from the muse? Remember, the muses were sisters. Whether asking how to attract the muse for our expression in music, visual art, or writing, the answer is the same as the punch line to the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice.

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Carol Robbins Hull writes as Carol Robbins from her home in Montgomery, Alabama. The author of a yet-to-be-published cozy mystery, Catalpa Worm Wettin’ and Caterpillar Crawl, her current project is the completion of My Mother’s Story, a memoir begun by her mother. Previous work may be found in on-line volumes of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave yearly publication, Alalitcom. Her blog site is


Guest Blogger S.L. Smith: Researching Everything Under the Sun!

February 23, 2014 7 comments
Author S.L. Smith

Author S.L. Smith

Researching Everything under the Sun! by S.L. Smith

Few things turn me off faster than books with factual errors. I tend to put them down—permanently. For that reason, it’s important I get it right. If I don’t know it, I research it. I’m talking about the smallest details. Some of the research is almost as fun as the writing. Some of it is a headache.

Let’s start with the enjoyable stuff. I ventured into writing mysteries only because a friend spent thirty-five years as a cop, and agreed to perform a reality check on the law enforcement aspects. One battle won.

It didn’t take long to discover I also needed a contact in the medical examiner’s office. I had to muster the courage to make that call. Thankfully, I connected with a gem. This investigator answered all of my questions for book one, Blinded by the Sight. When the book came out, I met him and gave him a copy. That paid off in spades.

He assisted, again, with Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery. At that time, he mentioned several items I should verify with my law enforcement expert. I explained this time my law enforcement expert needed, but lacked, an insider’s knowledge of the St. Paul Police Department.

He lined up two. One is the head of homicide. The other is a retired investigator/detective.  He obtained permission for me to call both men, and provided their direct phone numbers. Thanks to him, both St. Paul PD contacts took my calls and answered all of my questions. I was blown away! I learned so much from them.

I spoke with the St. Paul Fire Marshall to determine which vehicles would be sent to the scene, who would be in the vehicles, and what they’d do on site. Needing answers about hospital procedures and descriptions of the injuries, I connected with an emergency medicine physician. Both of those men were wonderful!

High school kids play a significant role in Running Scared. I called local schools to learn the times school starts and lets out. I had to know the procedures parents follow if their kids are ill. I needed the dress code. After all, the story occurs in Minnesota—in January. I had to put clothes on those kids.

Interviews are the fun part. The rest is interesting—but often a challenge.

The kids also needed names. The Internet provided popular names for the relevant decade. I use that same system to help select names for most characters in my novels.

One kid claims he wouldn’t play a part in the crime, because he’s intent on getting into Notre Dame. The Notre Dame website indicates whether the kid has an acceptance letter by the time the story occurs.

In Running Scared, the victim is struck by a car. The driver had to escape post haste, so the car couldn’t have air bags. Online, I determined the year air bags became01_RunningScaredfront_FINAL standard equipment. I selected a car, and still had to determine if it had air bags. Once I had the make and model, I also had to learn the exterior colors available that year.

The two investigators remark on the vehicle stolen to commit the crime, and the fact that across the street sat the car most commonly stolen at the time. Yup, I had to find out what car was most commonly stolen that year.

This book includes a U.S. citizen who works in Canada. I had to learn whether jobs in Canada are available to U.S. citizens, responsibilities for the selected job, common living arrangements for this transplant, travel methods and time required for this person to return to the U.S., as well as conditions that would delay an emergency trip home.

With help from a Facebook friend, I learned the age of homes in the neighborhoods playing a part in the book. I rode through those neighborhoods, getting a feel for the landscape and houses. I even learned the types of trees.

I wanted to know what the victim and attacker saw, so I could paint a realistic picture. For that reason, I repeatedly traveled the path they followed in the book.

Wondering how all that fits into a single novel? Check out Running Scared.

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S.L. Smith, a lifelong resident of Minnesota, was born in St. Cloud and moved to the Twin Cities after graduating from St. Catherine University in St. Paul.  She is the author of Blinded By the Sight and Running Scared: The Second Pete Culnane Mystery.  When writing mysteries, S. L. draws upon her degree in psychology, a career with vast amounts of law enforcement interaction, and her thrill for the investigative hunt.  A voracious reader since childhood and a lover of mysteries, she uses her knowledge of Minnesota and human nature to create stories.

S. L. is a member of Sisters in Crime.  Feel free to contact her at:






Guest Blogger Grace Topping: Revenge! Exorcizing Bad Memories Through Your Writing

January 20, 2014 21 comments
Grace Topping with Debra H. Goldstein

Grace Topping with Debra H. Goldstein


by Grace Topping

All of us have them. Those pesky, uncomfortable memories that make us blanch, screech, moan, grimace, shudder, or cry. Thankfully, most of them are buried deep in our subconscious and don’t come to mind often. But when we least expect it, a scent of cologne, a bit of music on the radio, or even a billboard along the highway can cause a memory to invade our thoughts like an unwelcome intruder.

Some memories might be nothing more than the recollection of something embarrassing, while others might be truly painful. Embarrassing or painful, our experiences are the things that shape and give texture to our lives, and our memories of those experiences are fodder for our writing.

Some memoirists talk about writing to exorcize ghosts from their past. In fiction, writers boast about taking revenge on someone by loosely basing a character, preferably a murder victim, on that person—in a way killing off a memory. If we can learn to laugh at things that happened in our lives, we might be able to move past them. What better revenge than basing a ridiculous character on someone who hurt us. It just might help do the trick.

The memory of falling in high school in front of the three best-looking guys in my class who laughed and stepped around me used to make me cringe. It always seemed to come to mind around the time for high school reunions. In my yet-to-be published mystery, I took that experience, added an attractive father who deserted the family and a handsome unfaithful husband and used them as the basis for my main character’s dislike of handsome men. It was a character flaw that caused her problems when she had to work with attractive police officers and other characters. It makes me laugh to think that three now middle-aged pillars of the community are immortalized in my manuscript. Now, if that memory were to intrude, I can laugh.

It would be wonderful if we had a pill or button that enabled us to zap uncomfortable or painful memories. But until such a thing is developed, why not take some of those memories and turn them into memorable characters and intriguing plots. They are free for the taking.

Do you have a ghost of a memory you’d like to exorcize?

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Thirty years of writing about computer systems was enough to drive Grace Topping to murder—or at least writing about it. Grace’s yet-to-be published mystery features a professional home stager. When she isn’t writing, she’s busy helping friends stage their homes. She is a member of the Chesapeake and Guppy Chapters of Sisters in Crime and of Mystery Writers of America. Grace and her husband reside in Northern Virginia.


Guest Blog: Jackie Romine Walburn – First Fiction for this Reporter: Finding the Truth Inside the Story

December 9, 2013 2 comments

post it walburn post 2First fiction for this reporter:Finding the truth inside the story

by Jackie Romine Walburn

Until starting my first and still-to-be-published novel, this lifelong professional writer- reporter-turned-corporate communications manager had never written a word of fiction. So, how did a reporter switch from journalistic rules of “just the facts” and “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy” to making things up?

It took a downsizing and layoff from that corporate communications job amid the 2008 economic crisis, multiple rereads of Stephen King’s On Writing, a kernel of a news story I covered as a reporter, and lots of days with the door shut writing one word at a time and finding the truth inside the story — just like the Post-it note says.

The yellow curled Post-it still hangs on my computer. In 2009, I gleaned the red-inked advice from King’s opus on writing and taped it to my computer screen, where it still clings. The advice urged this reporter to make up people, places and situations in my first novel, Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone. “Mojo” is in its sixth revision with the help of priceless early readers and my fiction writing teacher and editor Carolynne Scott and our weekly fiction writers group.

This constant revision is another leap for a writer who earned her living in the fast-paced business of reporting and corporate communications (which, believe it or not, IS all nonfiction).

As a reporter, you write a news story or feature; it is edited by an editor, printed and that’s it. You’re on to the next story. Fiction, however, means revisions and more revisions.

Writing fiction also means decisions about point of view; I started with four characters telling the story in first person and now am converting-revising to a third person narrative. Right now, I am also trying to decide if the original but revised prologue is in or out.

A successful reporter-turned-novelist warned me about this revision thing when I first started and I asked how to get an agent, how to get published. He said to worry about all that after your sixth or seventh draft. He spoke the harsh truth, but it took early readers and query rejections to bring the revision reality home to me.

Harper Lee spent several years of full-time revising of her original manuscript “Atticus” with a New York editor to create To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite and oft-reread work of Southern fiction. I’m just saying….

So, I revise, chapter by chapter, trying to make sure I write what is seen, heard, smelled and touched, telling the truth behind the story and omitting needless words – a reporter rule not on my Post-it (and No. 17 in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”) that is true for all writing.

I continue to refine Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone, a story that starts with the sheriff being tied to a tree by an escaping suspect with rumored voodoo powers (the kernel of the real news story) and explores how a magic spell and a killing affect characters in a fictional community in the Alabama Black Belt.

Still a reporter at heart, I am learning the fiction biz, including how difficult it is to get published in today’s e-book world, and, as Mississippi author Tom Franklin told us at the last Alabama Writers Conclave meeting, “if you’re not revising, you’re not writing.”

It’s all writing, you know. It’s what I do, be it fiction or nonfiction, and I am always grateful and challenged.

King, a pro who writes every day, gives good advice in the 1999 book that helped spur this reporter to fiction, including “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

He encourages all his Constant Readers who are writers or wanna-be writers: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

I keep drinking, Stephen. Thanks.

Jackie Romine Walburn and Debra H. Goldstein at 2013 Alabama Writers Conclave

Jackie Romine Walburn and Debra H. Goldstein at the 2013 Alabama Writers Conclave

Jackie Romine Walburn is a career writer, former corporate communications manager, editor and award-winning reporter – having reported for The Birmingham Post-Herald, The Auburn Plainsman, The Auburn Bulletin, The Selma Times-Journal and The Birmingham News. Most recently, she’s been published in The Birmingham Arts Journal and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave’s She is polishing the sixth draft of her first novel, a story of good and evil set in the Alabama Black Belt. She lives in Birmingham and writes the blog


Guest Blogger Sally Carpenter: Five Days to Make a Sitcom and Solve a Murder

November 18, 2013 19 comments
Sally Carpenter

Sally Carpenter

Five Days to Make a Sitcom and Solve a Murder by Sally Carpenter

A mystery writer starting a novel has the perplexing task of structure—what events will happen and in what order. Plotters will painstakingly map out each plot point, sometimes on index cards or sticky notes that are endlessly shuffled. Pansters will dive in, hoping that they don’t get stuck halfway in.

One pleasure of writing my new book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper, was that the subject matter provided me with a built-in structure. My protagonist is Sandy Fairfax, a 38-year-old former teen idol making a comeback. He’s the guest star on Off-Kelter, the lowest rated TV show of the 1993 fall season. When a healthy young actor drops dead at his feet, Sandy unwittingly investigates.

I fit Sandy’s sleuthing around a standard sitcom rehearsal schedule of that era. Whereas most modern sitcoms are shot on location and given a laugh track, in the 1900s sitcoms were filmed in studio soundstages in front of live audiences, as with Off-Kelter.

A sitcom took five days to rehearse and shoot (the script and the set designs were finished before then). The rehearsal time ran from Monday through Friday or Wednesday through Tuesday, which allowed the camera crews to work on two shows per week and avoided a logjam of too many audiences on the lot at once.

The first day—Monday, in my book—began with a table read where the actors, director and writers sat around a table and read the script aloud. The actors gave their opinions on lines that didn’t work and the writers began revisions. Usually a lunch break followed with rehearsals in the afternoon and running through Wednesday.

My story begins with the table read, an easy way to introduce the characters as they arrive for rehearsal. To add more conflict, I made the director, Royce Jobbe, an obnoxious person that Sandy had worked/clashed with on a prior show.

The mysterious death occurs Monday afternoon. This allows Sandy only four-and-a-half days to solve the case (a nice “ticking clock”), since after the show is taped he will no longer have access to the studio lot. People are generally not allowed onto studio lots unless they are working on a show in progress or have a guest pass from an executive.

To break up the monotony of rehearsals, I gave Sandy a preshoot on Wednesday. Some scenes in a sitcom may be filmed in advance and then screened for the live audience. Preshoots are used for action filmed on location or in the backlot; a hazardous scene involving, fire, smoke or explosions; special effects; or scenes with children who may be tired during the live shoot. Sandy performs a dance routine in the backlot (actually the scene was just an excuse to have Sandy boogie. He’s a terrific dancer). The shoot turns deadly when he’s nearly drowned by the rain machine.

Thursday is camera blocking. The four cameras and crew are brought in so the camera setups for each scene can be fixed. Camera placements are marked with bits of colored tape on the floor. Since this work is long and tedious, stand-ins are used for the actors. This gives Sandy a big chunk of spare time to do some on-lot sleuthing, which ends up with him tied up by the villain inside an unused soundstage.

Friday is show time! The actual filming the show with the audience makes a natural climax for the book. The day begins with dress rehearsal. At 4 p.m. the cast and crew break for an early dinner. After eating, the actors get into makeup and costume while the audience is brought in and seated. Shooting starts at 7 p.m. A twenty-minute sitcom takes three to five hours to film, allowing time for retakes and costume changes.

Since Sandy only appears in a few scenes, he has time during the shooting to do some investigating. He escapes a death trap, catches the murderer, and puts in a great performance all in one evening!

To gently ease the reader back down after the exciting conclusion, the final chapter takes place on Saturday when Sandy, finished with his work, can relax and tend to family matters.

Not all stories will have such a rigid structure, but this book was fun to write and proved that solving a murder while working on a sitcom is no laughing matter!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier, with a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University, who now lives in Moorpark, California.   While in school, her plays “Star Collector” and “Common Ground” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award and “Star Collector” was produced in New York City.

Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.

Her initial book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series, The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper, was a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel. The second book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper, is due out this month.

Her short story, Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in, appears in the anthology Last Exit to Murder.  Faster Than a Speeding Bullet was published in the Plan B: Vol. 2, an e-book anthology. The Pie-eyed Spy, a Thanksgiving-themed short story, will appear in the Nov. 23 Kings River Life e-zine.

Sally blogs at  She is a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. Contact her at Facebook or