Posts Tagged ‘Sisters in Crime’

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:





It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish) by Debra H. Goldstein

It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish) by Debra H. Goldstein

Recently, I listened to Barbara Cook’s rendition of the Cy Coleman and Dorthy Field’s signature song “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” from 1973’s Broadway show, Seesaw. Forty years after the song debuted, the words remain true.

Whether one is writing a novel, short story, or poem, the process is the same. “It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.” Writing requires coming up with an idea, getting it down on paper, rewriting, possibly tossing out one’s original thoughts, and writing the piece again and again until the words flow. It often is a solitary process, but the sisterhood of writers have the ability to inspire and help each other.

The reality is “If you’re going to last, you can’t make it fast,…Nobody starts a winner, give me a slow beginner.” At Malice Domestic, I had the privilege of riding an elevator with Carolyn Hart. I’m a pretty confident person, but as the elevator went up, I stumbled over my words telling “Ms. Hart” how much I enjoy her books. During the conference, where she was honored with the Amelia Award, I heard how her writing career didn’t take off. Her first few books either were not published or failed to sell well, but she kept writing. When she became an overnight success, it had been a long night. Our paths crossed a number of times during the conference and at the Sisters in Crime breakfast. Ironically, we were in the elevator together again leaving the conference. This time, I congratulated “Carolyn” on her award and we actually laughed about spending the conference in the elevator.

Thinking back on the difference in my behavior during our elevator rides, I realize that the change in my attitude came from being impressed with her writing abilities and with her persistence and willingness to help other writers. Even during the hour interview tied to her award at Malice, she took the time to give a new writer a shout-out. She was the only one to do so. It takes a big person to share one’s limelight with others. Her work ethic and her generosity illustrate the premise that “Your final return will not diminish/And you can be the cream of the crop/It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish/And you’re gonna finish on top.”

Guest Blog: Author Judy Hogan’s Conversation with Sammie Hargrave – Her Favorite Character

September 9, 2012 7 comments


Author Judy Hogan’s Conversation with Sammie Hargrave – Her Favorite Character 

Judy Hogan: Sammie, a new writer friend of mine, Debra Goldstein, wants a blog from me to post on her blog in early September, to celebrate the publication of Killer Frost, and she suggested I interview one of my characters.  I picked you, who are my favorite.

Sammie Hargrave: Suits me.  What do you want to know?  Seems like you should know me pretty well, after writing eight books in which I play Penny Weaver’s sidekick.

Judy: That’s the thing, Sammie.  You always surprise me.  You’re my most unpredictable character.

Sammie: Otherwise, your novels would be dull.  Penny’s okay.  I’m fond of her.  But without me to liven things up, she might be a little boring.  She’s so earnest.  I mean, she tries hard to obey the rules.  It only works for her about half the time, but she hasn’t caught on yet.

Judy: We can’t say the same about you, Sammie.  You’re a consummate rule-bender and dodger.

Sammie: I have more fun, plus Penny never minds when we’re solving a case, and I get into Derek’s briefcase to see the autopsy results, or we conduct our own interviews when he’s told us to say out of police “bidness.”  He’s worse than Penny is for rules.  It’s women who generally figure things out.  We see the big picture and pick up the atmosphere around people–the aura, stuff like that.  I can read body language a hell of a lot faster than Penny can, girl, or Derek, for that matter, but at least Penny’s learning to trust her gut instincts and know she needs me.  Can’t you see that?

Judy: I’m beginning to.  I myself was raised in a minister’s family, raised to be a good girl.  But by twenty-one I was in full rebellion, and I was drawn to people who had a touch of wickedness.  Maybe especially it was flamboyance I liked, and straight talkers.  I was sick of being nice to everyone.  I suffered for it.  Some of the rebels I hooked myself up with hurt me, betrayed me, you name it.  Finally, I added a little bit of wickedness to my own character–balanced it.

Sammie: Ha, girl.  You don’t know from Adam about no wickedness.  You and Penny, who’s your alter ego–right?–are still 99% good girls.  But you did get tougher, saw other people better, developed your bullshit detector, but the way we start out, stays.  You never noticed?

Judy: Tell us how you started out, Sammie.

Sammie: I was raised right here in Shagbark County, central North Carolina, and my people, too, as far back as I know.  Folks had plantations here, going back into the 1700s.  Ships came up the Cape Fear River, which our Haw flows into.  There were land grants from the King long before the Revolutionary War.  I haven’t traced back past my grandmother’s people, who were slaves.  She died when I was little, but Mama told me how it was.

I identify with my African beginnings, my slave ancestors, my grandmother, who grew up before World War II and did the white folks’ laundry, carrying it all from the big house to her shotgun tenant shack, and then washing it all by hand, ironing it with an iron heated on the woodstove, and then carrying it all back.  Then my mother worked as a maid for rich white folks and my father did logging work until he died.  She got me into an integrated school as soon as they had one in Shagbark–1972–when I started kindergarten.  She saved pennies for my books and clothes, and later, for my college.  I owe her so much.  Yes, that much of my history I know.  I have a love-hate relationship to it.  So much cruelty and injustice, but I’m so proud of the strength and courage my ancestors had.

It’s why I teach at St. Francis, shitty as it sometimes gets.  I want us black folks to hold onto our culture, our churches, our literature, our music, and our language, and, of course, our history.  Without our language, our culture dies.  So I keep it current in my mind, and I encourage my students to do that but to distinguish between when to use standard English and when to talk black folks talk.

Judy: Your friendship with Penny is so important to her, Sammie.  I like to think the two of you work on healing the rift that stays between the black and white races in this country.

Sammie: Right, important to me, too.  Penny is good people, even if I have to educate her half the time.  Things have changed a lot, but you know how that racism sticks.  I sometimes think we’ll never be free of it until people can’t tell the difference between us and everybody else–especially by skin color.

Judy: Tell me more about what’s important to you, Sammie.

Sammie:  Like you,  I want to be my own self, and I got this thing about clothes and hair.  Hats, too.  I like to look good, and I know people judge a lot by how you look.  That’s where Penny and I differ.  She dresses about the same way every day and rarely wears a dress.

Judy: Penny has two dresses.  I own three.  But we save them for special occasions–weddings, fancy banquets.

Sammie: So Penny wears jeans and slacks, blouses and shirts; shorts in the summer.  See her in a dress?  Must mean somethin’ big is comin’ down.  But I like to dress up.  Always did.  Mama let me play in her old clothes and Grandma’s wigs.  I’m a Thrift Store addict, and I have friends and cousins I trade off with.  I like it when people notice me. I like it even better when they don’t recognize me because I look different from the last time they saw me.

But a lot of white people?  They don’t see us nohow.  Like we’re invisible.  Run into them in a store, someone you’ve met at some political meeting?  They don’t see you.  So I take it one more step.  They notice but they don’t realize they’ve seen me before.  I can’t say why I do it.  The devil in me, I guess.

Judy: I know I enjoy you, Sammie.  You add zest to my writing.  A lot of my characters started from people I know.  Like Marcel Proust did, I often blend two or three together.  But you came to me out of the blue except for one detail.  I had an African American friend who also liked to look different each time you saw her.  That’s all I had to start with, and now you live and breathe, and I love to see what you’ll do or say next.  It’s one of the rewards of writing fiction.

Sammie: I’m glad I’m your favorite.  It’s not hard to surprise you, Judy.  You’re so predictable.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Judy Hogan’s first mystery novel, Killer Frost, was published September 1, 2012, by Mainly Murder Press of Connecticut.  Judy founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal (1970-81).  She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime and the Guppies in 2007 and has focused since then on writing and publishing traditional mystery novels.  In 2011 she was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest.  The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about.  She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, N.C.

Guest Blog: What Makes A Good Writer’s Group by Linda Rodriguez

What Makes A Good Writer’s Group by Linda Rodriguez  author of Every Last Secret  – winner of the (St. Martin’s) Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition

Over the years, I have been a part of many writer’s workshops, groups, and organizations. I have been a founder of several. When I was a young wife and mother, I desperately wanted the companionship of other writers, other people who understood this difficult thing I was trying to do.

Since those days, I have developed many wonderful writer friends who truly understand this difficult thing I still try to do. Better yet, I am now married to a writer-editor and have a son and foster-son who are talented writers. I also belong to four writer’s organizations that I helped found—The Writers Place, Latino Writers Collective, Border Crimes, and The Novel Group—three that I had no part in developing but still love and support—the Macondo Writing Workshop, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Con Tinta.

Before these groups, there others that were not so helpful or successful, a series of undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, a group of activist writers putting out an underground newspaper (back in the day of underground newspapers), a short-fiction critique group, a freelance writers group,  a novel critique group, and even a romance writers group. So I have broad experience with writer’s organizations and groups.

One of the key elements of a good writer’s group, whether it is nationwide like the Macondo Writing Workshop, citywide like The Writers Place, or just a few writer friends like The Novel Group, is respect, respect for the group, for the other members and for the purpose of the group. Respect involves giving honest and helpful criticism without making it hurtful or personal. Respect involves valuing the distinctive differences of each member, as both a writer and as a person, appreciating what those unique qualities bring to the group as a whole.

Another hallmark of a good writer’s group is enthusiasm. Good groups are excited about writing and the writer’s life. When members grow discouraged, they can come away from a meeting of their group re-energized and back in touch with their passion for writing.

If a writer’s group or a subset of the group functions as a critique group, it is important for all the writers in the group to be writing at a similar level of experience and ability, otherwise the group will eventually fail as a critique group, no matter how congenial the individuals are. Often, however, beginners may be a part of a group led by an experienced author for a fee. This can be a good foundation—if the goal of both the leader and the members is for the members to outgrow the group.

What has your experience of writers groups been? If you have not been able to find one, would you consider starting one of your own?

~ ~ ~ ~

Linda Rodriguez

Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret (Minotaur Books), won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was selected by Las Comadres Conversations With…, and was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick. The second book in the Skeet Bannion series, Every Broken Trust, will be published in Spring 2013. Linda reads and writes everything, even award-winning books of poetry and a cookbook, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda.  She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at

Guest Blogger: Norma Huss

Location, Location, Location  by Norma Huss

You know what they say about buying or selling a home. The three most important attributes of a home are location, location, and, of course, location. How about a mystery? Maybe location isn’t  all three of the top choices, but it does play an important role.

When I wrote my first mystery, Yesterday’s Body, I began by placing it in Annapolis, Maryland. Then I added a museum to the plot, like the one at Solomons Island, MD. I could no longer use Annapolis, and Solomons Island didn’t have much of a city, the hills, the parks, in fact, every other site I wanted. So I invented Queensboro. It had everything that Anapolis had, the museum I needed, and sounded like it belonged on Chesapeake Bay, since there was already another town with a similar, but not the same name—Queenstown. And, I was free to add anything else I wanted to that imaginary city.

When I began writing Death of a Hot Chick, I thought I’d place it in that same Queensboro. Except—I wanted a small-town feel with a lot more boats and a watery ambiance.

I had to do it again! Invent my location.

Let’s see—I needed a rather run-down marina quite close to a top-of-the-line marina. And I knew exactly, sorta, what I wanted—the marina where our first boat was when we bought it. Definitely top-of-the-line with a deep water enclosure lined and crisscrossed with docks and boats—all kinds from go-fast cigarette boats to large yachts (including then Senator and former astronaut John Glenn’s). The marina was surrounded with condos selling for a million or two, plus a fine-dining restaurant where you definitely needed reservations. I did tone that opulence down slightly for my book.

Then I needed the main marina of the story. I selected the marina where we took our boat, in Galesville, Md. This yard was over one hundred years old. It was a working yard with all the well-organized clutter that any purist could hope for. But I couldn’t set my story in Galesville. There was not much of a town, and no fishery. So I moved that marina with the most decrepit of the boats along with the first marina into my newly created fishing village, Smith Harbor.

Smith Harbor you ask? Where did that name come from? Glad you asked. Smith is a name well known in Maryland history, and as a place name—Smith Island. And, like Queensboro, it sounds right, and even more important, there were no others listed by Google. Yes, I Google every name I use. And, although I’m thinking Maryland, I never name the state. For one thing, I don’t want to be pinned down to any particular laws on, for instance, insurance requirements for boats. I answer any such question the same way I choose my location—piecing my new whole together from several sources. I researched Chesapeake Bay bordering states’ requirements and went with a middle figure.

And, like I did for Yesterday’s Body, I kept track of street names and their relative locations, restaurants, schools, homes, all of it. How far could Cyd walk and how long would it take? If Kaye drove that way would she get lost? Where does Gregory keep his charter fishing fleet? Even though my village is imaginary, it has real boundaries, real distances, and an ambiance all its own.

Will I ever use a completely real location? I doubt it. After all, who wants to eat in a restaurant with a villainous cook? (Another one of my ideas.)

How about you?

Authors, do you think location, location, location when you plot? Do you use real cities, towns, and country estates or invented ones?

Readers (which definitely includes all authors), what do you prefer to read—real locations or invented ones. Does it make a difference to you?

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About this week’s guest blogger:

Norma Huss is a wife, mother, grandmother, loves cooking, doesn’t mind laundry, hates housecleaning, and is always, a writer. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the Guppies Chapter, and Pennwriters. She’s getting into Twitter and Facebook, and really likes Goodreads where she can talk about other writers’ books.

Norma calls herself The Grandma Moses of Mystery. Have you heard about her? She became famous for her primitive paintings at eighty and continued until she was 101. Since Norma’s mother is now 102, takes daily walks, and does word puzzles, the possibilities are great.

Find out all about Norma’s interests, her books, and read a couple of free short mysteries at:

Norma’s Note on Death of  a Hot Chick’s cover:  My daughter designed the cover to Death of a Hot Chick using two of my photos (a sunset and a boat) as well as other pictures she had permission to use. (The owner of Snapdragon gave me permission to use her boat in a mystery.)

Musings on Malice by DHG

April 30, 2012 11 comments

Malice Domestic XXIV has ended – amazingly!  As a dedicated cozy mystery reader (and writer), I have long realized that many of my favorite authors are Agatha winners and that the Agathas are awarded each year during the Malice Domestic Conference.  Research, a writer’s second best tool, revealed that Malice is one of the largest fan/writer conferences.  The formal agenda lists three days of informative panels, special breakfasts including Malice-Go-Round and New Authors, the Agatha Awards Banquet, an Opening Ceremony, and a closing tea.  The quality of programming is top notch, but the sub-level interaction is amazing.  No standoff behavior here. 

Often, it is impossible to tell who is a fan and who is a writer.  The smiling woman you start talking to in the elevator or while having coffee might as easily be a fan from Milwaukee as Margaret Maron or Charlaine Harris.  Authors at all levels of their careers could be found sharing tips, encouragement, or “you wouldn’t believe” stories in the hospitality room, the bar, or anywhere a conversation could be held.  The common thread throughout the weekend was that it didn’t matter if one was a reader, an established writer, a newbie, or a wannabe.

As a member of Sisters of Crime, I particularly enjoyed the Sunday morning breakfast and the times that the Guppies got together.  It was nice to put faces with names that I have exchanged messages with through the listserve. 

Leslie Budewitz

Agatha Winner Leslie Budewitz & DHG

There was a special excitement to have so many of them nominated for Agathas for their short stories, first books, fiction, and non-fiction.  All of the Guppies jumped out of the pond when Leslie Budewitz won an Agatha for Books, Crooks & Counselors… 

 I also was very moved by the words and the look on her face when Sarah Bewley, whom I previously met when Carolyn Haines and she ran Daddy’s Girls’ Weekend (another fine conference), spoke after being announced as the winner of a scholarship to Malice awarded annually based upon a partial manuscript.  Bet we see Sarah onstage again as a future Agatha winner.Personally, I was excited that not only was this my first Malice, but I was permitted to be a participant in two events.  I was one of the twenty-four authors who hosted a table at the New Authors breakfast and was allowed to speak for two minutes to the entire room – and yes,  give me a microphone and I had them laughing J.  My turn on the “Well-Schooled Panel” was more serious, but introduced me to five wonderful writers:  Judy Hogan, Linda Rodriguez, Frankie Bailey, Robert Spiller and Ada Madison aka Camille Minichino. 

Well Schooled Panel

Ada Madison aka Camille Minichino, Linda Rodriguez, Frankie Bailey, Judy Hogan, Robert Spiller and DHG

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the operations behind the conference — all of whose names I apologize for not knowing – but that is because this conference is put on by volunteers for the love of mystery writing.  But thanks to a special few:  Barb Goffman (whose touch and she herself was everywhere), Ann Murphy (loved that librarian voice), Rita (your control center blew me away as I helped Velcro signs),Verena Rose, and of course, toastmaster and writer extraordinaire Dana Cameron.

 Would I go back again?  In a heartbeat –  because that is the true measure of the love between the fans and writers who attended Malice XXIV.