Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Around the World

by Jean Henry Mead

While researching Christmas customs around the world, I discovered that the first Christmas tree was decorated in 1510 in Germany and Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia). And in many countries Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas. In Latvia he places gifts under the tree and a special dinner is prepared of brown peas with bacon sauce, small pies, sausages and cabbage.

In Finland, where children believe that Father Christmas lives above the Arctic Circle, they call him Korvatunturi. Their three holy days include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a public holiday in many countries known as the second day of Christmas). Finnish people eat rice porridge and a sweet soup of dried fruits on Christmas Eve, then decorate a spruce tree in their homes. A "Christmas declaration" is broadcast throughout the country at mid-day via radio and television. And that evening a traditional Christmas dinner is served consisting of casseroles containing liver, rutabaga, potatoes and carrots with ham or turkey as well as various salads, sweet and spiced breads and cheeses. They also attend church and decorate the graves of their departed relatives. Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve from someone in the family dressed as Father Christmas.

In Hungary the Winter Grandfather (Santa Claus) arrives on the sixth of December when children place their carefully cleaned shoes outside the door or window before retiring for the night. The following morning they find candy and small toys in red bags placed inside their shoes. Youngsters who don't behave find a golden birch branch next to their shoes, which is meant for spanking, although it's rarely used. On Christmas Eve, children visit relatives or attend movies while baby Jesus delivers Christmas trees and presents to their homes. Candy and other edibles are hung on the tree as well as glass balls, candles and sparklers. Fresh fish with rice or potatoes and pastries are usually served that evening for dinner, after which the children are allowed to see their decorated tree for the first time. Christmas songs are then sung and gifts opened. Older children usually attend Christmas mass with their parents later that night and on Christmas Day the kids are allowed to eat the sweets hanging from their tree.

In Belgium Sinterklays (St. Nicholas) is also celebrated on December 6, and is observed separately from the Christmas holiday. Santa Claus is known as Kerstman or le Pere Noel because there are three languages spoken within the country—Dutch, French and German. Santa Claus brings gifts to the children on Christmas day and small presents for family members are placed beneath the tree or in stockings hung near the fireplace. Sweet breads called cougnour or cougnoleand and shaped like the baby Jesus are eaten at breakfast.

Romanian children receive small gifts on December 6 from St. Nicholas in their freshly-polished shoes. Rural families "sacrifice”a pig on December 20, and each part of the pig is cooked in a different way, such as sausage or mince meat cooked with rice, onions and spices. They also dress up as bears and goats to sing traditional songs at each house in the village. Children visit other homes, not unlike our Halloween, to sing carols and receive sweets, fruit or money. Transylvanians serve stuffed cabbage on Christmas Eve and eat the leftovers for lunch the following day when they return from church services.

Brazilians call Father Christmas Papai Noel and the date of celebration differs in various regions of the country. Christmas trees are decorated by even the poor who have plastic trees or simple branches decorated with cotton to represent snow. Christmas dinners for the affluent usually consist of chicken, turkey, pork or ham served with rice, beans and fruit, often served with beer. The poor usually have chicken, rice and beans with  beer or colas. For desert they enjoy brigadeiro made of chocolate and condensed milk.

Christmas is called Noel in France and Father Christmas is known as Pere Noel. Christmas dinner is an important family gathering with the best of meats and finest wines. Christmas trees are often decorated with red ribbons and white candles, and electric lights adorn fir trees in the yard. Most people send New Year’s cards instead of at Christmas to wish friends luck, and Christmas lunch is celebrated with fois gras, a strong pate made of goose liver followed by a meal of seafood.

House windows are decorated in Germany with electric candles and color photographs as well as wreathes of leaves with candles called adventskrant, which signal the arrival of the four-weeks before Christmas. Additional candles are added as the holiday grows nearer. Father Christmas, called Der Wihnactsmann, delivers presents to the children during the late afternoon of Christmas Eve after celebrants return from church. A member of the family rings a bell to announce that presents are under the tree. Christmas Day is celebrated with a meal of carp or goose.

Father Christmas delivers gifts to Portuguese children on Christmas Eve. Gifts are left under the tree or in their shoes near the fireplace. Christmas dinner usually consists of dry cod fish and boiled potatoes at midnight.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, Christmas celebrations were prohibited. The New Year was celebrated instead when Father Frost brought gifts to the children. Now in Russia, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, or more often on January 7, the date the Russian Orthodox church reserves for religious observances. Christmas dinner consists of cakes, pies and meat dumplings.

New Zealanders celebrate by opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning. They then have Christmas lunch at home or a family member's house. A dinner of chicken or turkey is eaten, followed by tea time and dinner cooked on the barbie, served with beer or wine. And in Sweden, a special dinner is served on Christmas Eve of ham, herring and brown beans. Many attend church early on Christmas Day before gathering to exchange gifts with family members.

Christmas customs in this country are too numerous to list, and I'd like to wish all our blog visitors a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year, no matter where you happen to live, or how you plan to celebrate the holiday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Converting Blog Articles into a Book

I never dreamed of converting interviews from my Mysterious People blog into a book when I established the site in 2008. But such good advice and life stories evolved that I couldn’t allow the material to disappear into cyber space. I recycled a great many interviews and decided to make them available to all Amazon.com readers.

Before the interviews were accepted for publication by Poisoned Pen Press, I submitted them to three publishers, all of whom accepted, so I was faced with a dilemma. Do I go with PPP, which only offered to publish a Kindle version or two small, well respected presses, which offered a print version but wanted to make changes. I finally decided to accept Poisoned Pen’s contract with the hope they would also publish a print edition or sell the print rights to another publisher. Eventually they released a large print edition (shown above),

Interviews with unknown writers usually don't sell books and I found the best time to approach a bestselling author is just before a new release, which is probably why Sue Grafton agreed to an interview when V is for Vengeance was released. Embolded from acceptances from Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block,Carolyn Hart,  Nancy Pickard, J.A. Jance and other publishing giants, I asked Janet Evanovich for an interview. So far I haven’t received an answer, but you can’t win them all.

I’ve featured quotes from interviewees on one of my Facebook pages. Among my favorites is one from Nancy Means Wright: "Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher nails up rejection slips and adverse reviews on the side of his barn and shoots holes in them. I just leave mine in a cardboard box and let my Maine Coon cats make a nest or pee on them. So send that manuscript out again!"

And from Louise Penny: "Finish the book. Most people who start books never finish them. Don't be one of those. Do it, for God's sake. You have nothing to fear--it won't kill you. It won't even bite you. This is your dream--this is your chance. You sure don't want to be lying on your death bed regretting that you didn't finish the book." Lawrence Block was more succinct with his advice: "Write to please yourself. And don't expect too much."

I've had so many good interviews since Mysterious Writers was accepted that I published another, The Mystery Writers. I began my writing career a news reporter so interviewing is second nature. And the rewards are immeasurable.

I hope aspiring writers will discover something in these collections to help them in their struggle to publication, which is the main reason for the blog site as well as these books. Mystery readers also enjoy reading about their favorite authors.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Murder at the Mansion on Sale

If you haven't read the Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, now's your chance to sample a copy for only 99 cents. Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty survive a tornado and run for their lives from a killer who follows them as they flee to Texas as well as the Alaskan outback where they find themselves in even more danger. The sixth novel in the series is on sale at Amazon.com from December 4-6.

Other novels in the series:

A Village Shattered

Diary of Murder

Murder on the Interstate

Gray Wolf Mountain

Murder in RV Paradise

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Remembering Elmore Leonard


Elmore “Dutch” Leonard’s overnight success began in 1951, when he flipped a mental coin to decide between writing crime novels and westerns. “Westerns won because I liked western movies a lot,” he said, “and because there was a wonderful market for western short stories. You could aim at the Saturday Evening Post or Colliers, and if you missed there, try Argosy, Blue Book, and on down to the lesser paying pulp magazines, the most prestigious being Dime Western and Zane Grey. Right behind them were Ten-Story Western and Fifteen Western Tales.”

Leonard was always been an avowed reader. “A bookworm, yes,” he said, “beginning with The Bobbsey Twins and The Book House volumes of abridged classics that included everything from Beowulf to Treasure Island. In the fifth grade I read most of All Quiet on the Western Front, serialized in the Detroit Times, and I wrote a World War I play that was staged in the classroom, my first piece of writing.”

His first nine years were spent south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the youngest of two children. He lived in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Memphis before moving to Detroit in 1934, during the World Series. Raised a Catholic, he graduated from Detroit High School and the University of Detroit, both Jesuit institutions where he majored in English and philosophy.

A baseball player during high school, he acquired his nickname “Dutch” from teammates, who borrowed it from the Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher. The second Dutch Leonard served in the Navy during World War II with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific. Four years later, he acquired a bride and a new job with an advertising agency.

Leonard lusted for full-time writing, and remembers a letter from his agent in 1951, which attempted to discourage him from quitting his advertising copywriting job to freelance. He had concentrated on truck advertising for Chevrolet and, by that time, had a tank full of writing catchy ads. Getting out of bed at five o’clock, he wrote two pages of fiction before going to work “with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer ever since.”

While working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writing by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he wrote fiction on the job. His first two short stories were rejected, so he decided to spend more time and effort on research. Although he had never set foot west of the Mississippi, he concentrated on the Southwest, Apaches, the cavalry and cowboys, while subscribing to Arizona Highways magazine to learn all he could about the arid terrain. His first sale the previous year was a novelette titled, “Trial of the Apache,” which sold to Argosy for their December issue. His next story, “Tizwin,” earned him a rejection letter from Argosy and a sale to Ten Story Western, which eventually appeared in print in 1952 under the title, “Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo.”

Thirty of his short stories sold during the 1950s, four of them to Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post, while the majority appeared in Dime Western and Zane Grey. Leonard sold everything he wrote with the exception of his first two short stories and several with contemporary settings. By the end of the fifties, television had taken over. “The pulps faded away and the book advances didn’t compare to what was once offered. It took nearly two years to sell Hombre, for an advance of $1,250.” Multiple printings followed, with the book listed among the twenty-five all-time best westerns. Hombre more than made up for its meager beginning, along with a film version starring Paul Newman, which earned the writer a modest $10,000.

Gunsight was his last western novel, written at the request of Marc Jaffe in 1979 for Bantam Books. Leonard then flipped his genre coin and found that crime can pay quite well. Stick and LaBrava made him an overnight success, nicely padding his wallet along with the 1985 film version of Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, a production he prefers to ignore. The writer’s innate humor is deadpan, he said, not slapstick.

Glitz sparkled for eighteen weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, ensuring him top billing on the literary marquee, but although the film rights were optioned by Lorimar, production stalled for more than two years.

His sudden popularity cut deeply into his writing time. “It’s nice to get fan mail,” he said, “a few letters a week, and being recognized on the street, but the interviews are wearing me out. I’m asked questions about writing, and about my purpose in the way I write that I’ve never thought of before. And I have to take time to think on the spot and come up with an answer. I’m learning quite a bit about what I do from recent interviews, and getting a few answers.

Interviewers ask Leonard for advice for budding writers. He usually responds with: “The worst thing a novice can do is to try to sound like a writer. I guess the first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite.” His advice is simply to write. “Don’t talk about it, do it. Read constantly, study the authors you like, pick one and imitate him, the way a painter learns fine art by copying the masters. I studied Hemingway, as several thousand other writers have done. I feel that I learned to write westerns by reading and rereading For Whom the Bells Toll.”

A portrait of Hemingway hung on the wall of his office, reminding him that he studied the revered novelist’s work for “construction, for what you leave out as well as what you put in. But I was not influenced by his attitude, thank God. My attitude is much less serious. I see absurdities in serious situations, influenced in this regard by Vonnegut, Richard Bissel, and Mark Harris, and this shows in my writing. It’s your attitude that determines your sound, not style.”

Leonard wrote for many years in longhand on specially-ordered yellow sheets, rewriting and revising until he was ready to type his final draft. “I’ll do a few pages this way and then put it in my Olympia manual office-model typewriter,” he said. “I hate to change ribbons, but have no interest in electronic advances. How the words are eventually reproduced is not my concern. I revise as I type, aiming for five or six clean pages a day. Then I continue to go back and revise and the pages begin to pile up. Sometimes I’ll go back and add a scene or shift scenes around, but most of the revising has to do with simplifying, cutting out excess words, trimming to make it lean or to adjust the rhythm of the prose.”

(This was an early interview with Dutch Leonard and can be read in it's entirity in my book,  Maverick Writers.)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Around the World

Halloween isn't just an American holiday. It originated in Ireland, where it was originally known as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain Night. The end of summer's Agricultural Fire Festival was held for the deceased who were said to revisit the earth on that night. So the practice of building large community bonfires was enacted to ward off evil spirits. The name Hallowe’en evolved from All Hallow’s Eve, and the holiday was imported from Ireland during the 19th century. Halloween spread to other countries, including Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as the rest of the British Isles.

In 837, Pope Gregory decreed that All Hallows, or All Saints Day, previously known as Feast of Lemures, would be held every year on November 1, in the name of the Western Catholic Church. Previously celebrated on May 13 in other countries, it coincided with the Irish Samhain. During the 9th century, the two holidays were celebrated on the same day because the Church decided that the religious holiday would start at sunset the previous night, according to the Florentine calendar. All Saints Day was celebrated in northern European countries, and was a day of religious festivities. Until 1970, it was also a day of fasting.

The jack-o-lantern originated in Europe and was carved from turnips and rutabagas. Small candles were inserted in the hollow vegetables and they were used as lanterns. Because the human head was believed to contain the spirit, the Celts carved the vegetables to represent heads to ward off evil spirits. According to Irish legend, a hard-drinking farmer named Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, where he was temporarily trapped. Farmer Jack then carved a cross in the tree, which condemned the devil to wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollow turnip.

Carved pumpkins are a North American custom, originating with the fall harvest, and known to have preceded the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, were not associated with Halloween in this country until the mid 19th century.

In Scotland, the embers of huge bonfires built in the villages were taken home to form circles. A stone for each family member was then placed inside the circle. The Scots believed that if one of the stones was displaced or broken by the following morning, the person it represented was doomed to die within a year. Northern residents of Wales built bonfires called Coel Coeth in every village. Members of each household would throw white stones into the ashes bearing their names. If any stone was missing the following morning, that person was destined to die before the following Halloween.

The village of Fortingall in Perthshire held a festival of fire, or Samhnag. Every Halloweeen they danced around the fire in both directions. As the fire burned low, young boys grabbed embers from the flames and raced around the field, tossing them in the air and then dancing around them. Later, they would have a jumping contest over the collected embers. When finished, they returned home to bob for apples. They also practiced divination, the art of foretelling the future or interpreting omens.

Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Mexico until around 1960. Our southern neighbors have followed our customs of costuming their children and allowing them to visit neighborhood homes, seeking candy. When they knock or ring the bell, the children say, "¡Noche de Brujas, Halloween!" which means "Witches' Night, Halloween!" Young people have Halloween parties and the holiday lasts for three days prior to All Saint’s Day, which is also the start of the two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In the Netherlands, Halloween has become popular since the early 1990s. Children dress up for parades and parties, but trick-or-treating is rare because the holiday is so close to St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin’s is the day when Dutch children ring doorbells and sing a song dedicated to the saint, in exchange for small treats.

Romanians, regardless of age, party and parade in costumes not unlike North Americans, but the holiday focuses on Dracula. In the town of Sighisoara, where countless witch trials were once held, parties are held in the spirit of Dracula. Actors also reenact the witch trails on Halloween.
Some South American countries, influenced by American pop culture, celebrate Halloween, which has caused consternation among a number of Christian groups, who deplore the lack of attention to the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve. But businesses profit from the sales of costumes and candy, so the holiday has been allowed to remain a favorite of young people. The same is true in Japan, Spain and Germany, among other countries.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Women Serial Killers

This post is a departure from those that I usually write but  Halloween is fast approaching. And I've wondered whether serial killers use costumes or disguises to lure victims to their untimely deaths.

We rarely hear about women serial killers. They usually maintain a lower profile than their male counterparts, and they’re generally more efficient, according to Sean Mactire's book, Malicious Intent. They’re also just as lethal. Mactire lists them in four categories: black widows, nurses, terrorists and assassins.

Black widows murder their own husbands and children, as well as other relatives. They’ve also been known to kill their employees and tenants. Remember the Sacramento landlady who planted her boarders instead of flowers? And the film, "Arsenic and Old Lace"?

Nurses are the most prolific serial killers because of their unlimited opportunities to murder without detection. Many consider themselves angels of mercy. Terrorists, on the other hand, kill for political reasons while assassins murder for money. The latter categories have increased in numbers at an alarming rate.

Body counts average 8-14 victims, higher than the male serial killer’s tally of 8-11, and they’ve been known to kill for as long as 30 years. The average age of women killers is 32, and they’re intelligent. In fact, most are white, middle to upper-class women. Surprisingly, they’re not only nurses but debutantes, housewives, farmers, waitresses, college students, business owners, housekeepers and career criminals.

Women murderers have been recorded throughout history, but none more frequently than during the Roman era. Prior to the advent of Christianity, women held positions of near equality with men and, in matriarchal societies, even higher because their wisdom and skills were considered superior. When emerging western societies gradually eliminated women’s influence and power, the murder rate increased. During the ninth through eleventh centuries in Normandy, poison was known as the “widow maker” because it was frequently used by disgruntled wives, who preferred widowhood to divorce. Poisons still account for half the murders committed by women in this country today. We'll never know how many.

The primary reason female killers have escaped attention is that society’s perception of women is one of caretakers and nurturers. Many find it difficult to believe that women are capable of murder, other than an impromptu domestic killing. Known women serial killers are few because they’re almost impossible to detect. They murder quietly and usually don't take part in wild killing sprees unless they’re suffering from severe psychosis.

Serial killers, regardless of gender, prefer to prey on the weak and helpless: children, elderly women, and hospitalized patients, but they’ve also been known to kill politicians, policemen, hitchhikers and landlords. Many have killed husbands for their insurance payoffs. One black widow killed a number of her husbands with stewed prunes generously seasoned with rat poison. When she ran out of husbands, she poisoned her mother, sisters, grandson and nephew. By then she apparently ran out of prunes.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Breathing New Life into Orphaned Books

How would you react if your publisher suddenly died and orphaned your series? Panic? Tears? Or would you follow the trend and republish the books yourself? Few publishers will consider a series after the third novel is published, so I resurrected my small press, which I operated years ago to feature fledgling authors.
I’m electronically challenged, but my husband learned to upload files for both ebooks and print editions. And, because the books were previously published, there was little editing to do. It wasn’t long before we had seven books online as well as local stores stocking them.

Fortunately, I’ve served as a news, magazine and small press editor, and my husband does a good job designing book covers. We’re both bibliophiles with a large home library, so our love of books keeps us motivated.

The next problem is how to promote our books. With so much competition from more than a million ebooks, and thousands more published each day; we need to find ways to make our books stand out. But how to do that? Too many blurbs on Facebook and other social media sites only turn readers away. So how do you let readers know about your books on a limited budget?

Besides guest blogging at popular sites, I decided to take part in virtual book tours. The best part of blog tours was hearing from readers who stop to comment about our books. Having someone say, “My husband grabbed your book before I had a chance to read it,” really makes a writer’s day—an entire week even. 

Before I close, I’d like to ask you, my visitors how publishers 
attract your attention and what makes you decide to buy their books? I appreciate any comments you’d like to make.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jeffrey "Hammerhead" Philips

Jeffrey Knox Philips, an internationally known underwater naturalist, has pursued his passion for large marine animals such as hammerhead and tiger sharks, humpback whales, sea lions, and manatees around the world from Bridgetown, Barbados; Peti-Goave, Haiti, to Lucuala, Fiji. Twice winner of the Okefenokee Wildlife annual contest for his underwater photography, his photographs often appear in the pages and on the covers of half a dozen dive magazines. 

His articles have appeared in Florida Scuba News and Shark Diver magazine and his video footage has been used in several documentaries aired on the Discovery Channel. As an underwater naturalist he often is interviewed on TV by CBS affiliate WPECand NBC affiliate WPTV in south Florida, as well as nationally, which has helped to get the word out about the destruction of turtle nesting sites, over harvesting of lobsters and anchor damage on the coral reefs. He also offers advice on undersea homeland security issues. So when he decided to write mystery novels, the sea was a natural setting.

Jeff, you have an impressive background in underwater photography. How did your interest in large marine animals come about?

It is easier for a large animal to fill the viewfinder than it is for a little guy. Photographing flighty palm-size fish becomes frustrating unless you have lots of patience. The key for me was to start with slow moving, fat creatures. Manatees are easy to learn the craft. After gaining confidence and experience, I set my lens on french angelfish, queen angels, rainbow parrotfish, each species getting a little larger. The most curious were nassau groupers who seemed to enjoy seeing their reflection in the dome ports or lens glass.

What’s a shark rodeo? And why do you prefer to photograph hammerhead and tiger sharks?

I believe “Shark Rodeo” was first coined by the dive staff on Walkers Cay, Bahamas in the ‘80s. They would take a 50 gallon trash barrel, fill it full of fish and freeze it, thus making a chumsicle. Once frozen, they’d take it out to a sandy bottom site that is surrounded by brain corals with a boat load of nervous divers. Over the years the sharks learned that anytime they heard the whine of a particular boat propeller, that they would get fed. While revving the diesel engines , the Bahamian boat captain said “I’m ringing the dinner bell. Time for supper.”

The divers then descended into about 30 feet of water and laid or knelt on the sandy bottom. The frozen chumsicle, tied to a float ball, would stay suspended about 15 feet below the surface. As soon as the ball started to melt, the sharks swam in. Not a few, but around a hundred. Nurse sharks, black tips, Caribbean reef, and bull sharks. The divers had to follow one rule, don’t touch the bait and stay at least 15 feet away from the frozen fish chunks. The sharks would circle the bait ball, tearing bits out of it, just like a wild rodeo. The sharks often swam between the divers, over the divers, around the divers. Strobes firing from cameras, newbie divers and first timers wide eyed. Definitely a heart pumping, adrenalin pulsing time. Often nurse sharks would lie beside divers to rest and hope to get scratched. The encounter lasted little over an hour. Plenty of time to capture an award winning shot and memories never to be forgotten.

What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in underwater? And how did you survive?

The most dangerous situation? Sun burn. And so far I’m surviving. The dermatologist says I have perfect skin. Some of the more interesting: Cave diving at a place called Eagle’s Nest. After squeezing through a chute about the diameter of a fireplace chimney, I popped out into an opening larger than a small island. OK, maybe not that large, but large enough that my silver-cadium battery lights didn’t reach the cave’s sides. Another one of interest, swimming into a school of silversides that blocked out all sunlight. Or being boomed by a 300 pound goliath grouper. Every bone in my body vibrated. Maybe dancing with a six foot green moray. Or how about a bull shark biting into my fin and giving it a shake so violent I thought he broke my leg. It’s hard to decide the most interesting. I always say, the next encounter I’m going to have.

Why did you leave corporate America at the height of your career ten years ago to take fledgling naturalists on dive trips to educate them about coral spawning, turtle nesting, fish dancing and other wonders of the deep?

It was an easy decision. Should I stay in a high rise tower with a window view of the world, or take my friend’s job invitation to work every day on the ocean? Working in corporate America has many advantages, job security, health care benefits, paid vacation, a nice salary, and more. But when I started sitting in the bathtub every night wearing my mask, fins, and snorkel, my wife said it was time to change jobs and be a dive guide. I left an environment where people were unhappy, always striving to produce more, work harder, meet unrealistic goals for a work atmosphere where every day I met happy people. Divers who look forward to see sights most people in this world cannot even imagine. How do you compare anything to watching at 2am a 200 pound loggerhead turtle lug her body up on the sandy beach, spend an hour digging a nest, laying 200 eggs, then crawl back to the sea. How about coral spawning? Around midnight on a full moon in August seeing millions of BB size eggs being ejected out of star coral, floating to the surface and fish coming in to gorge themselves. Some people comment on the beauty of a blue sky. That is pale when descending into the depths of blue in the ocean. The shades turn darker and more vibrant in the depths. Once the ocean salt entered in my veins, I keep being called back like an outgoing tide.

When and why did you decided to write underwater mysteries?

I was told to write about what I know. But better advice, write about what you love. The ocean has me handcuffed to it. I feel at home in salty water. Ever since I was a kid pulling on my first set of fins, I loved to read mysteries. Thus the two just naturally formed.

Tell us about your protagonist .

Jesse Stoker is also a man who loves the ocean. The only thing he really wants to do in life is take people diving, show them the wonderful fish, and insure they have a great time. But he has demons. His wife disappeared in a scuba diving accident, the Coast Guard says her body descended into the depths and will never be found. Stoker holds himself accountable. Then a local radio personality goes missing from his boat on a night dive and it is up to him to find her and clear his name.

Your wife holds a 100-ton Coast Guard captain’s license? Please explain.

My wife, Kitty, the prettiest mermaid in the ocean, wanted to captain the dive boat we owned, while I dove with the guests. Out boat was big enough to hold 24 divers, which required her to have a 100 ton vs. a 50 ton license.

Thank you, Jeff.

You learn more about Jeffrey Phillips at his website: www.jeffreyphilips.com, his blogsite: www.handcuffedtotheocean.com and his Facebook page. He says, "I’m the one standing on the stern of a boat in front of a yellow shark cage cutting bait. Please 'friend' me.'" You can also find him at GoodReads, MurderMustAdvertise, Coral-reefs, Flsnorkeladdicts, Floridascubadiving and Scubadiving2.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Writing a Series

After you write that standalone novel, your publisher may suggest that it become a series. So it’s important that you like your protagonist(s) and want to continue writing about them. Agatha Christie grew tired of writing about Hercule Poirot and wanted to kill him off, just as Conan Doyle attempted to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes.

When I began my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, I named my two protagonists Shirley Lock and Dora Holmes. They were known as Shirl Lock & Holmes, a corny spin on the detective and his physician narrator. When my publisher closed its doors, I resold the series and changed the names to Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty. By that time my two women sleuths had become like old friends, whom I enjoy visiting to eavesdrop on their conversations.

Dana is a bit autobiographical while Sarah is similar to my friend Marge, who is outspoken and often so funny that she has me laughing tears. Dana is a mystery novel buff, who, with her friend Sarah, a private investigator’s widow, buy a motorhome to travel the West, as I’ve done. Making the two women mobile provides them new settings in each novel. Although two of their motorhomes have been wrecked in the first three books, Dana’s wealthy sister dies and leaves her a considerable sum of money as well as a Wyoming mansion. The money allows them 
Sixth in my Logan & Cafferty series
additional   mystery solving opportunities as well as extensive travel.

Most protagonists have a job and the author needs to be knowledgeable about the occupation, or at least know the basics. And above all, enjoy writing about the job on a continuing basis, without becoming bored. Another pitfall is to change the tone of the writing. For instance, you shouldn't  begin writing a cozy and decide in the middle of the series to darken it to a noir. Readers will complain. I’ve covered various subjects in my series, including adultery, drug gangs and homegrown terrorists, blackmail and extortion, mental illness, serial killers and wolves, but with humor, so I’ve been able to get away with subjects not usually associated with two 60-year-old feisty amateur sleuths. And readers have fortunately told me that each book has been a fun read.

If your series becomes popular, you may have to continue writing it longer than you had planned. J. K. Rowling was able to discontinue her Harry Potter series after seven books, but Sue Grafton is committed to 26. Her schedule has changed over the years and she now only writes three hours a day with one published novel every two years. Now in her early 70s, she’ll be nearly 80 when Z is for Zero is released, but she plans to continue writing about her private investigator on a standalone basis after the series ends. She admits that Kinsey Millhone is her alter ego and that she enjoys writing about her.

I can't imagine writing 26 novels about someone you don't like and I'm glad that I enjoy my characters, especially my lovesick sheriff.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Visit with J. A. Jance

Bestselling novelist J.A. Jance has two recently released novels, Fire and Ice from HarperCollins and Trial by Fire by Simon and Schuster. She's pictured with her dogs, Aggie (with the white face) and Daph, named for Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.

Judy, when did you first know you wanted to become a mystery writer?

I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in second grade. I didn't specifically want to be a "mystery writer" but because I always read mysteries it was a natural fit.

Tell us about Fire and Ice and Trial by Fire.

Fire and Ice is the second pairing of my two detectives, Joanna Brady in Arizona and J. P. Beaumont in Seattle. They are working seemingly separate cases but, by the end of the book, they find the two are definitely connected. Beau's parts of the story are told in his first person voice. Joanna's parts are told in the third person.

Trial by Fire, Ali number 5, has her working as a newly appointed Media Relations Officer for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department. When eco-terrorists burn down a supposedly unoccupied house, Ali is part of the investigation that first must identify the victim before locating the killer.

How did your J.P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds series come into being?

Until Proven Guilty, the first Beaumont book was published in 1985. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing a one-time book. I was new to Seattle, but the character was a Seattle native. I had to do a lot of research to make that work, and writing in from a male first person point of view was challenging. After writing nine Beaumonts in a row, I was growing tired of the character.

My editor suggested I come up with some other character so I could alternate. When I wrote the first Joanna Brady, Desert Heat, I knew I was writing a series but I used my experiences of being a single parent, of living in the Arizona desert, and of working in a non-traditional job to create her character. Ali Reynolds grew out of seeing a longtime Tucson female newscaster pushed out of her job due to age factors.

What in your background prepared you to write grisly crime and horror novels?

I have the dubious honor of having spent sixty days of my life in the early seventies being stalked by a serial killer, someone who is still in prison as I write this. During that time I wore a loaded weapon, and I was fully prepared to use it. I used some of what I learned from that investigation to create the background for Hour of the Hunter, Kiss of the Bees, and Day of the Dead.

Where do you do your best writing, in Seattle or Tucson, and why?

I write in both places. It remains to be seen which writing is best. And I don't have to BE in Arizona to WRITE about Arizona. It was in trying to turn the landscape around Bisbee into words when I finally realized why with the red shale hills and the limestone cliffs that Bisbee High School's color are red and gray.

Who are your favorite authors and which one most influenced your own writing?

I started out reading Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene. But I read John D. McDonald and Mickey Spillane. Those were the people who showed me it was possible to write a series of books for adults.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you aim for a certain amount of words each day?

Since I'm on a two book a year schedule, I write every day. I don't have a set number of words. I'm also a wife, mother and grandmother. I like having a life.

What are the basic ingredients for a bestselling novel? How long did it take you to reach the list?

I don't know the basic ingredients. I guess I'd say characters and plots. As for when did I make the list? Fifteen or twenty books ago probably, but making the lists is entirely arbitrary and based on decisions that are made far away from the author's effort. I don't think the books I wrote before making "the list" were of any lesser quality than the ones that have.

When did you begin donating a percentage of your bookstore earnings to charities, and which ones?

Very early on. I don't remember exactly. I've been involved with the YWCA, the Humane Society, the Relay for Life, ALS research.

Advice to fledgling writers.

When I bought my first computer--1983--the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so every time I booted up the computer, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written TODAY! Those were words I clung to when I was a "pre-published" writer and that still resonate with me today. Today I AM a writer. I'm working on Chapter 5 of the next Ali book.

J. A.'s website is www.jajance.com. She also has a blog there as well as at www.Seattlepi.com in the City Brights section.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Why You Should Write Everyday

When I sat down to write, I thought of a long ago interview with bestselling romance novelist Parris Afton Bonds for my book, Maverick Writers. Bonds emphasized the need for writers to write everyday. The mother of five lively sons, she wrote between diaper changes as well as on the job, which cost her several secretarial positions before she decided to write full time.

“I write when I’m sick,” she said, “and even as I shove that turkey into the oven on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are no legal holidays for professional writers.”

A steady writing schedule is one of the most important aspects of publishing one’s work. Whether you rise two hours early to write before leaving for your day job, or at night before you go to bed, it needs to be done at least five days a week. Women with small children can schedule their writing time when the young ones are down for a nap, if only for an hour, but the same hour each day until it becomes a habit. But if you only have a few minutes now and then, use that time to jot down notes or bits of dialogue as Don Coldsmith did on the backs of prescription pads during his daily medical practice.

Mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser echoed Bond’s work ethic. She began writing at 10:00 a.m. and continued until 4:00 in the afternoons. Both writers stressed the fact that you must stay at the computer (or note pad) no matter how difficult the writing is going that day.

“My first draft is pretty bad,” Millhiser said. “But no matter how difficult it is, I hang in there. Sometimes you have to backtrack and begin again, but don’t stop to polish a chapter until the first draft is finished. When I’m on a run and the plot floats along, the characters take over and it’s wonderful. But most of the time, I’m just sitting there and sweating it out. And I’ve found, I’m sorry to say, that the stuff I sweated out and got three pages by working my pants off, was about the same quality as when the story just flowed along and I’ve gotten ten pages.”

Brian Garfield, author of “Death Wish” and countless other novels and screenplays, said, “I took up writing partly because some of the stuff that was published seemed so awful and so easy to do, and of course it isn’t easy to do, as you find out when you sit down to try to do it. And it took a long time—a lot of apprenticeship practice before I could write anything that was worth publishing. But you don’t know that until you try. At the time of the interview, he wrote five hours a day, from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. until back problems caused him to cut his hours.

Set your pace, as steady as walking on a treadmill. Before long you’ll feel that you must write during those hours. It becomes as important to those who want to succeed as breathing. Writing is a way of life and a regular schedule is necessary.

I'm at my computer by eight in the morning, with few exceptions, and write until three or later in the afternoon. A half hour treadmill break gives me a chance to loosen up and recharge my brain cells.

When do you write and how often?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Converting Blog Articles into Books

I never dreamed of converting my interviews at Mysterious Writers into a book when I started the blog site eight years ago. But such good advice and life stories evolved that I couldn’t allow the material go to waste. I recycled a great many interviews and saving them for posterity seemed the right thing to do, especially after Carolyn Hart and Jeffrey Deaver agreed to contribute to the series.

I interviewed more than a hundred mystery writers and submitted  them to Poisoned Pen Press, which turned them into ebooks. I’ve seen Internet ads offering to turn blogs into books for $14.95. A great idea for a blogger’s memoirs but it's not very profitable for resale. I offered my book to three publishers, all of which accepted, so I was faced with a dilemma. Do I go with PPP, which only offered to publish for Kindle, Nook and Sony readers? Two small, well-respected presses also offered a print version but wanted to make changes. I finally decided to accept Poisoned Pen’s contract with the hope they would also publish a print edition or sell the print rights to another publisher.

Interviews with unknown writers usually don't sell books and I found that the best time to approach a bestselling author is just before a new release. My interviews with Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Nancy Pickard, Louise Penny, John Gilstrap and other publishing giants were accepted along with their articles written for my Mysterious Writers blog.

I had also been featuring quotes from interviewees at my Facebook pages. Among my favorites is one from Nancy Means Wright: "Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher nails up rejection slips and adverse reviews on the side of his barn and shoots holes in them. I just leave mine in a cardboard box and let my Maine Coon cats make a nest or pee on them. So send that manuscript out again!"

And from Louise Penny: "Finish the book. Most people who start books never finish them. Don't be one of those. Do it, for God's sake. You have nothing to fear--it won't kill you. It won't even bite you. This is your dream--this is your chance. You sure don't want to be lying on your death bed regretting you didn't finish the book." Lawrence Block was more succinct with his advice: "Write to please yourself. And don't expect too much."

If starting that first novel has you discouraged or you think you'll never get it finished, read what some of these writers have also gone through. Their stories are not only inspiring, they'll make you laugh and you'll wonder how the publishing business ever survived. (We writers must have inspired the invention of the straight jacket.)

I’ve had so many good interviews since Mysterious Writers was published that I plan to produce additional  collections in more than one genre. I’d really rather be writing mystery or historical novels but I began my writing career a news reporter, so interviewing comes easily. And the rewards are immeasurable.

I hope aspiring writers will discover something in this collection to help them in their struggle to publication, which is the main reason for the blog site as well as the book. Mystery readers will also enjoy reading about their favorite authors.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pulling Your Readers into the Plot

A strong opening sentence is obviously the best way to pull readers into the story:

~The body was hanging at eye level when Carolyn entered the room.

~ The snow was so deep that only Snerdly’s cap was visible.

~ A foot hung from Fido’s mouth.

~Today is probably the last day of my life.

I’m sure you can think of better opening sentences to entice your reader into your fictional world. It’s a writer’s job to seduce and lure--one carefully crafted step at a time to lead your reader into an adventure away from the real world.

The reader needs to know where you’re taking him and why. Is your fictional world believable? Fantasy writers can get away with great stretches of the imagination but mystery writers need to stick to the facts. So don’t have a body suspended in mid-air unless your protagonist is a magician.

Your opening sentence had better lead into the main theme of the plot. Don’t start with a couple kissing on a park bench unless one or both of them are shot or witness a nearby killing. And don’t start with boring back story or it won’t be long before you lose your reader. Jump immediately into the action. Keep your reader breathless for pages before you let her up for air.

Motivation and goals are essential in developing your plot. Another good way to lose your reader is to have your protagonist risk his life for silly reasons. If the killer murdered the character’s mother, you have a believable reason for him to go after the culprit. Some amateur sleuth stories border on the ridiculous when ordinary people decide to trap a killer simply because they think they can. Give them good reasons to place their own lives in danger.

Don’t people your plots with too many characters. Mark Twain wrote that the best way to get rid of characters when they’re no longer needed is to have them jump down a well. Better yet, make sure characters are only there to further the plot and can be eliminated when you tie up all the story’s loose ends.

Killing off characters can be painful for the writer but extraneous side plots can kill the story. In the old western films cowboys used to ride off into the sunset with the townspeople staring after them. Not so with mystery novels, no matter what the sub genre. We want to leave the reader wanting more. Readers like to solve the mystery on their own before the conclusion, so don’t make the killer’s identity the most unlikely candidate in your plot. Be fair when you plant red herrings and clues so that the reader will be able say, “Aha, I should have known it was him (or her). “

What’s the best opening sentence you’ve written or read?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Writing the Mystery

A Guest Blog by Patricia Gligor

When I decided to write my first novel, Mixed Messages, I had no intention of writing a series. The book was supposed to be a mystery/suspense standalone. But, as I was writing it, I realized there was more to the story and I needed to finish what I’d started. So, I wrote Unfinished Business and, by the time I’d finished that book,  I’d become so attached to my characters there was no way I was letting them go. I had to know what would happen to them as time went by and I wanted to watch them change and grow. The only way to do that was to write a series. I now think of my Malone mystery series as Family Drama mysteries because my books are about more than the mystery. They’re about the lives of the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

With each book, new situations and characters crop up that propel me forward and, in a series, there are always loose ends that need to be tied up. Sometimes, I deliberately plant something in a book which will lead to the next one but, other times, the subject for the next book is a surprise to me. For example, in Unfinished Business, the casual reference to a news story about a little girl who had gone missing led me to write Desperate Deeds where my main character’s young son, Davey, goes missing too. When I wrote about the news story, I had no idea that would happen. 
So, how did Mistaken Identity, my fourth Malone mystery, come about? Well, I decided that, with all the problems and stress I gave Ann in the first three books, she deserved to get away from Cincinnati for a while and to have a peaceful, relaxing vacation on Fripp Island in South Carolina. So, that’s what I gave her. Well, sort of.

About the book: Ann feels like she’s in Paradise as she digs her toes into the soft, white sand and gazes out at the ocean. She’s looked forward to this trip to South Carolina for a long time and all she wants to do is bask in the sun, resting and relaxing.

She and her two young children are enjoying their time on Fripp Island with Ann’s sister, Marnie, and Marnie’s elderly friend and former neighbor, Clara Brunner, a long time resident with a vast knowledge of the island and the people who live there. At the fourth of July fireworks, Clara introduces them to newlyweds Jenny and Mark Hall and their families.

But Ann’s plans for a peaceful vacation are shattered the next morning. When she goes for a solitary walk on the beach, she discovers the body of a young woman with the chain of a gold locket twisted around her neck and she immediately recognizes the locket as the one Jenny Hall was wearing the night before.

Shocked and saddened, Ann is determined to try to find the killer and to see them brought to justice. She convinces Marnie and Clara to join her in conducting an investigation but, in the process, she places her own life in jeopardy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How to Knock 'Em Dead

Bestselling author Hallie Ephron not only writes suspense novels, but how-to-books, including Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style, nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She was also the recipient of the Salt Lake Libraries Readers Choice and David awards and is the Ellen Nehr Award winning crime fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe.

Hallie, how did your early environment influence your career as a journalist and novelist?

I grew up in family of writers (my parents wrote plays and movies; my sisters Nora, Delia, and Amy are all well published) in a house that was wall to wall books. The pressure to become a writer was tough to resist. I tried for three decades and then succumbed.

Did you ever consider following in your parent's careers as a screenwriter?

Dialogue isn't my strong suit, and that's what screenplays are. So it was not the natural place for me to begin.

Where did you work as a journalist and did the experience serve you well when you began writing novels?

I never thought of myself as a journalist. I wrote essays and feature articles for magazines and now I review crime fiction for the Boston Globe. Reviewing books--and more importantly reading lots of them--has helped me see why some books work and others don't. So it's really helped me as a teacher, and also as a critic of my own work.

Tell us about your psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie. How did the story come about?

I got the idea when I was at a yard sale near my house. It was a big Victorian house, one where my daughter used to play with the children of a former owner. I was dying to find out how the interior had been transformed. I drilled the poor homeowner with questions until finally she said, “Why don’t you go inside and have a look around?” I didn't wait for her to change her mind. As I wandered on, through the upstairs, I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside and…she never comes out.

The idea made the hair on my neck stand up. I knew right away that my next novel would start with that yard sale. I knew that the woman running the yard sale would be nine months pregnant, and the woman who comes to the yard sale and disappears would be nine months pregnant, too.

When did you decide to write how-to writing books and what do they encompass?

I didn't actually decide... I was teaching a class for writers and the acquiring editor for Writer Digest Books sat in on a bit of my class. Afterward, she asked if I'd like to write a book about mystery writing. I jumped at the opportunity. I started my career as a teacher, and this gave me a chance to combine teaching and writing.

How do you select books to review for the Boston Globe? And do you always try to find something good to write in each review or do you just cut to the chase?

I pick from the 80 or so titles sent to me each month. Yes, I try to find books I like. If I don't like a book I stop reading and go on to the next one in the pile. But if I review I book I don't like, I say so--but I try not to be flip or clever about it, just as specific as I can.

What’s the best way to acquire an agent and are they necessary to sell fledgling books?

Yes, they are essential if you want to be published by a mainstream press. Agents have become the arbiters of taste. The process is well documented--in Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents it's all laid out plus detailed information about each agent and how to contact them. Just follow the rules about querying. And be patient. And revise, revise, revise if you are fortunate to get comments back.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep at it. Perseverance pays. Grow a rhinoceros hide so you don't take criticism personally, but hear it and use it to make the work better.

What do you stress most in your fiction courses at writers’ conferences?

Not to send a work out too early--I see so many authors jump the gun and send out manuscripts that still need work.

Which writer, past or present, would you like to have lunch with?

P. D. James. That's easy.

Hallie Ephron's website: http://www.hallieephron.com/

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fiction Action!

I read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that I thought was worth noting. Rosenfeld said, “Action is a dynamic word that calls to mind a director hooting into a megaphone at his actors. It's also the heartbeat of good fiction that keeps readers riveted to the page. Action is comprised of all the elements a reader can 'witness' taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life. Despite all this, many writers have a tendency to shuffle important action ‘offstage,’ relying on pace-dragging narrative summaries and recaps instead.”

The solution to preventing pace-dragging scenes is to write them within a framework. By presenting scenes as though they were happening on a theater stage, all the drama takes place as it happens, not offstage and something for the characters to discuss. Readers remember what happens on stage and can make their own deductions. They needn’t wait for the characters to endlessly discuss what has just taken place.

The scene’s momentum keeps the reader reading and her heart pounding as the action accelerates if the plot situation seems real, particularly when the character is in danger. Instead of characters talking about a past experience, replay the scene in flashback action. By reliving it in living color, the reader can experience it for himself.

Another good way to involve your reader in a scene is to reveal information in dialogue. A good plot reveals new information in each chapter and one of the best ways to deliver the news is to have the characters act it out. Give the narrator a rest. It’s much more powerful to have events happen now than to hear about it later, secondhand.

Character movement is essential in a good scene, whether the protagonist throws a chair through a window in anger, or flicks ashes from a cigarette into his cup. Don’t leave your characters standing around without something to do. Body language is a giveaway when a character’s motives are in question. If a man drops his head when asked if he killed someone, it usually means he’s guilty or knows who committed the crime. If a woman lifts a palm to her chest while denying something, changes are she’s telling the truth.

If your character comes to an important decision or suddenly realizes that he has the answer to a problem, avoid internal monologue as much as possible. The realization will have more impact if it happens in someone else’s presence because it raises the emotional stakes for all concerned, as well as your storyline.

And finally, turn your back story into front story whenever possible or delete it from the plot. Back story is your character’s past, which you feel needs to be included. It’s usually spooned in as narrative summary instead of dialogue and lacks the elements of scene writing. Because it doesn’t take place in the present, there’s no dialogue or scene setting or action taking place. When that happens, the best part of back story is casually written off without the slightest hint of emotion. And as I've said before, emotion drives the plot.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Rescuing a Stalled Plot

by Jean Henry Mead

Writers have all been there at one time or another. The story’s going along great when all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail, you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

It's time to unearth intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, Henderson says, “it’s just the stuff we really need to know about our characters. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.”

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?
A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.
Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.
A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.
Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.
A. So did I until I started resaerching his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in an accident?
A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.
Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?
A. Well, I guess I overcorrected when Sara distracted me.

Properly interviewing characters can bring out traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to all sorts of plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writer Envy

by Jean Henry Mead

I've been fortunate to interview hundreds of writers, some bestselling and award-winning, who have offered great advice for those just getting started in the publishing business. Some of the best advice regarding submissions and rejections has been: when a rejection arrives, allow yourself one hour to grieve, then get back to the computer and query that same editor with another story idea. Or, if the rejection was harsh, dig out your list of editors and begin querying again. Don’t think that John Grisham was immune to rejections. His first novel was rejected nearly thirty times before it was accepted for publication.

If it isn’t happening for you right now, don’t let the green-eyed monster invade your soul if you read congratulations to other writers when they announce a sale or writing award. They’ve been where you are any number of times before they were discovered.

Professional envy seems to be more prevalent in writers than other professions because we invest more of ourselves in our work. Psychologist Eric Maisel, the author of Coaching the Artist Within, says that the wide gap between successful writers and those still struggling to succeed enhances feelings of envy. And, unlike most occupations, there is no linear path to success.

You may have been writing steadily for years, selling sporadically, when you notice that someone half your age is on the bestseller list. How could that happen when you’re a much better writer? You may think that she’s the editor’s cousin or she happened to meet a top agent at a cocktail party. Luck does play a large role in publishing successes. So you’ve got to put yourself out there and make your work known. What better place than the Internet?

Diana Burrell wrote that “envy is a real burden for writers because it can derail a promising career. Envy manifests itself in two destructive ways: as psychological pain, such as lowered self-confidence or depression, and acting out behaviors that include self-sabotage (sending out sloppy query letters, for example) and withdrawal (failing to network with other writers for fear of hearing someone else’s good news).”

Mansel said, “It becomes a vicious cycle. You have more to envy because you have fewer successes because you’ve been hiding out.” In the long run, depression and negative feelings can cause writers to develop creative blocks and they may stop writing altogether. The good news is that you can conquer your feelings of envy by admitting them aloud to yourself, which helps to dissipate the power they hold over you.

“You must take action in spite of how you feel," Mansel added. Burrell defined that action as transforming envy into desire. Begrudging a shameless self-promoter only causes you pain. Instead, study how the writer works his or her press and create a promotional plan of your own.

Success is relative. For some it’s getting a single book published. For others it’s the bestseller list. Create your own list of goals that you want to achieve and figure out how to get there. Some writers consider themselves successful if they earn enough money to quit their day job. What are your writing goals? Write them down and paste them to your computer so that you never lose sight of them.

What if a writer friend is envious of your book sales and it’s ruining your relationship? How do you handle that? Mansel advises us to “Be your best self. Act as a mentor, freely giving advice to those who ask for it, and try to be of help. It can be painful when you sense other writers are rejoicing in your setbacks, so take a deep breath, smile and remain compassionate. If you take your successes too seriously and notice that your relationships with other writers are becoming difficult, he advises to: “Get over yourself.”