Mystery Musings

I just finished reading the book CIRCE by Madeline Miller.  I love Greek myths, and I’ve always enjoyed the story of Odysseus.  On his journey home, Circe was one of the more fascinating characters he met.  And she’s a witch.  Now, anyone who’s read my blog very long knows I’m fond of good witches, too.  So this was a double win for me.  And Circe WAS a good witch.  His men deserved to be turned into pigs.

When I wrote urban fantasies, I used myths and witches in a lot of my stories.  But this book is literary, so Circe’s journey involves character growth more than adventures and battles.  And it explores what gives life meaning.  Circe is a nymph, so she’s immortal.  But the gods and goddesses she meets and who make up her family are shown mostly as petty.  There are a few exceptions, but they’re rare.  Most of them are full of pride, and they’re fickle.  They live forever, but their lives don’t mean much.

Circe is her mother’s firstborn, but her mother doesn’t consider her beautiful enough.  Neither does her father, so she’s the object of a lot of scorn.  Her sister, however, and then her brother are radiantly attractive, but mean.  Looks trump goodness of character every time in Helios’s halls.  Immortality doesn’t deepen wisdom or kindness.  It blunts it.  The gods purposely abuse mortals, because they know when frightened, humans worship them more, not less.  Thankfully, Circe sees this as the defect it is.

Circe tries to cope until she finally angers her father so much, she’s banned from his halls and sent to live on a small island.  This island becomes her sanctuary, where she learns to develop her spells and grows stronger day by day.  She learns lessons the hard way until she becomes a woman smart enough to defy the gods and get away with it.  It’s a pleasure reading how she becomes true to herself, even when the odds are against her.

My Florida daughter recommended this book to me, and I’m so glad she did.  The story made me wonder if imperfections are what make us grow to become the best we can be.  In stories, characters without flaws are boring.  Is that true in real life?  And as always, Greek gods are shown as vain and thoughtless.  A great combination for an interesting read.

Mystery Musings

In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten especially happy talking about reading with my daughters and my grandson’s wife.  My Florida daughter and Tyler’s wife both convinced me to read the book CIRCE, by Madeline Miller.  I love Greek myths.  They both love literary fiction.  All three of us are excited about the book.

My Indy daughter’s an eclectic reader, like I am.  She tries a variety of different things, but we both share a passion for Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.  I bought her the newest book in the series for her birthday this year.  She finished it so fast, I should have bought her another book to finish out the weekend.

Sharing books made me think of things I read growing up, books my mother loved and recommended.  She bought me the entire set of Laura Ingall Wilders novels.  Later, she loaned me all of her Grace Livingston Hill collection.  I still remember The Enchanted Barn and want to make that a project for Jazzi, Jerod, and Ansel sometime–converting a barn into a home.  She gave me Betty Zane by the author Zane Grey.  I was so taken with that character that after I read the book, I tried to teach myself to purse my lips every time I was deep in thought, like she did.  Now I regret that.  I have the wrinkles to prove I succeeded.

I read to both of my daughters when they were growing up and tried to buy books I thought they’d enjoy when they got older.  I gave my Florida daughter all of the Alice Hoffman books on my shelves.  She’s still a fan.  She read a lot of Stephen King, too.  My Indy daughter read every single Fever series book by Karen Marie Moning before I could read them.  She’d snitch my Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels new releases, too.  And I loved it.  I read every single word of every single Harry Potter to my grandsons.  It was a special bond for us.  That, and playing Frogger together.

What about you?  Do you have any special memories of books you shared as a family?  Any books you share now?

 

WHY?

You know, when our kids were growing up, each of them went through a phase when they kept asking, “Why?”  And you’d give them one answer, then another, then another, and then you never wanted to hear that word ever again, because an answer just led to another question.  I sometimes feel that way when I try to seriously think about books I’ve read.

When I finish a book, HH always asks, “How did you like it?  Was it good?”  And then we have a great discussion about books and writing.  But every once in a while, I frustrate him, and I really frustrate me, because I say, “Everything in the book was great, but I just couldn’t get into it for some reason.”  And, in all honesty, that drives me a little crazy.  Because then, the next logical question is “Why?”, and I don’t always have an answer.

When I finish reading a book, I want to know what in it worked for me and what didn’t.  I learn a lot from that.  So when I say, “It had a great plot, great characters, lots of twists and turns, and a solid mystery,” and then I add, “but it didn’t hold my interest.”  I mean, I have to ask myself, What else is there?  What was missing?  Why did I like the last book in the series but had to work to finish this one?  And I’ve had that happen to me a few times lately.  And it’s annoying.  Mostly, because I’ve picked up a few books that were only written sort of haphazardly–not the best word choices or character arcs or spelling–and they kept me entertained from start to finish.  So what’s the deal?

I finally figured it out this morning.  I can forgive the occasional sag in a plot, the occasional lackluster description.  But when the protagonist is as clueless about where the plot’s going as I feel, and I can’t see where the clues or events are headed, I know I’m in trouble.  Now, some authors I trust enough that I know eventually they’ll find their way.  But my reading enthusiasm gets mired in the meantime.

This inspiration was good for me, because I’ve always wondered why I’m not a fan of P.I. fiction.  So many of my friends go on and on about how wonderful a certain P.I. is, and I read the same novel and make myself turn the pages until the end.  Because it’s just not my thing.  When I read a P.I., I feel like I’m just following a person around until he irritates enough people that he’ll get beat up, and once he’s licking his wounds, he might find the one right person who can give him the answer he needs.  He solves the case mostly because he’s so stubborn and through dumb luck and elimination of other possible suspects.  Okay, I’m not going to win over any P.I. fans with that description, but a gumshoe doesn’t feel like he has the same finesse as a Hercule Poirot who relies on his little grey cells.

I feel the same way about a protagonist in a series I like when she comes up against a case where she doesn’t seem to know which end’s up.  She feels lost, trying to solve the case, and so do I.  And I don’t like it.  I much prefer when the clues just stack up, one on top of the other, and they feel like they’re moving in the right direction.  I might not be able to point to the criminal and say, “Aha!”, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  Knowing that, I understand why the two books I struggled with bothered me so much.  The heroines couldn’t make sense of any of the clues.  When they added them up, they didn’t mean anything.  And I was frustrated.

Of course, the fine balance in a mystery is to give enough clues to keep the reader involved, but not so many clues that he solves the case too early.  That being said, though, I often know who committed the crime and I still enjoy the story.  I want to see how the protagonist catches the villain.  That, in itself, is satisfying to me.

What about you?  What slows you down when you read an author you like, but the book falls short?  Do you have any pet peeves?  Happy reading…and writing!

 

 

The British are coming~

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not much of a fan of thirty-minute comedies or evening game shows on TV.  I’m hooked on Dancing With the Stars, but it hasn’t been on for a while, and I’ve never bothered with whatever they chose to replace it.  I watch foodtv on Saturday mornings, but that’s it.  Most everything else is repeats and competitions.  That’s why I signed up for Netflix.  We watch shows on it once in a while.  But then I signed up for BritBox.  And my poor HH’s life has changed.

I love British mysteries, and boy, are there a lot of them–old Hercule Poirots and Miss Marples, plus new ones I’ve never heard of.  Diana Riggs is Mrs. Bradley with clever murders and droll humor, Rosemary and Thyme has its two female sleuths stumble over dead bodies while working on landscaping and sickly lawns, and Shakespeare and Hathaway are a cute blond/frumpy P.I. pair.  HH watches a mystery with me occasionally, but he’s more partial to The Great British Baking Show, not that I’ll ever spend three hours making a perfect Victoria Sponge, but he can dream:)

We used to turn off the TV after the evening news.  Now, we flip to BritBox and watch an hour of something entertaining before he settles behind a library book and I pick up my Kindle.  In the days WC (With Children), our TV habits revolved around family entertainment or one of their favorites, but now, AC (After Children), we can watch what we want.  And it’s wonderful.

I’ve always been partial to British mysteries.  I started out with Agatha Christie and then got hooked on Martha Grimes with Scotland Yard Inspector Richard Jury.  And then I discovered Elizabeth George and her Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley.  Maybe they were an extension of my love of Pride and Prejudice.  I’m not sure.  But they have a certain feel about them, nothing gritty like American P.I.s.

Lately, I’ve become equally enamored with cozies.  Instead of an English village with a shop that serves tea, I’ve grown fond of small towns with diners and breweries.  I’ve traded an inspector for an amateur sleuth, but the murders are all quite civilized.  It’s rude to splash gore on the walls or furniture.  For variety, I’ve added an occasional paranormal mystery to the mix with witches who solve murders or own bakeries, and I still toss in a thriller or urban fantasy now and then.  But this summer, I return often to low-key pleasant reads and TV. It suits my mood.  Who knows what winter will bring?  For now, though, hope your reading and writing are going well.  May the words flow!

 

We All Have Favorites

I listened to Chuck Wendig’s podcast this week where he discusses everything about writing and marketing and death threats.  Yes, he got them, but his writing is a bit irreverent.  Still…  it’s writing.  If a reader doesn’t like it, he can toss it in the can.  I’m not good at podcasts, at sitting still and listening when there’s no person to focus on.  Lectures where I can watch a speaker?  I can concentrate for hours.  A faceless voice?  I end up fiddling, losing my concentration.  But I’m glad I made the effort to listen to Wendig.  He intrigued me to try his talk when he said that he thought series were always a matter of diminishing returns.

What?  I’d always heard that series helped a writer BUILD an audience.  And I still believe that.  But that’s not what he meant.  He meant that a writer gets fewer and fewer reviews the longer the series goes.  And he’s probably right.  Just look at some of your favorite authors’ first books compared to their fourth or fifth.  He says a writer’s ego needs some of that praise and when it dwindles, it’s harder to feel inspired to write.  Well, you can judge that for yourself.  But here’s the link to the podcast, if you’re interested: https://wegrowmedia.com/chuck-wendig-on-owning-your-voice-and-choosing-the-path-of-your-career-as-a-writer/#disqus_thread

Anyway, I listened to his talk, and then I got to thinking about series.  I happen to love them.  I’m much more inclined to buy a book in a series I love than a standalone that I’m not sure about.  And that even goes to second or third series that some of my favorite authors write.  I mean, let’s be honest.  We all have favorites.  These are my truths:

I love Lynn Cahoon’s Tourist Trap series more than her Cat Latimer or Fork to Table series, even though they’re all good.  Why?  Beats me.  I just like the mix of people more and the romance between Jill and Greg.  I still buy the other series, though, just not as many.

I love Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series AND her Hidden Legacy series.  Have I tried some of her other books?  No.  Same goes with Patricia Briggs.  I buy every Mercy Thompson book, but I haven’t gotten into her Alpha and Omega series.  And I could go on.  I love Jenna Bennett’s Savannah Martin.  Not so much any of the others.

Why?  The same author writes the books.  They’re writing is topnotch.  Always.  But I’m not the only reader who struggles with this.  Martha Grimes tried to write a few break away books when she got tired of writing about Richard Jury.  All readers did was complain that they wanted another Superintendent Jury.  Same with Elizabeth George and her Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers mysteries.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes but had to bring him back when readers complained so much.

Why does one series click when another one doesn’t?  I don’t know.  But I think a series can help build an audience, and the readers who love one series might not buy another one.  There are no guarantees.  But that’s life, isn’t it?

Have a great week, and happy writing!

 

Great Advice For Reading To and Writing For Middle Grade!

My fellow Scribe and good friend, Kathy Palm, just finished writing a book for Middle Grade and is sending it out to agents now.  I wish her great luck.  I got a chance to critique it, and there was nothing much to critique.  The book was WONDERFUL.

She shares her view on Middle Grade books here.  And it’s great advice!  If you read to your kids while they were growing up, this will give you the warm and fuzzies, like it did me.

https://www.katejfoster.com/talking-middle-grade/its-about-possibilities

Hibernating

The temperatures are dropping in northeast Indiana.  It’s going to be a cold weekend and an even colder week.  Thankfully, my husband and I are retired, and we don’t have any appointments on our calendar.  So, we’re hibernating.

I’ve always loved the four seasons, but I have to admit winter was more fun when I was young.  As a kid, it meant snowball fights and sledding.  As a young adult, it was something to battle to make it to work.  When our backs were strong and supple, we shoveled it, but the fresh, crisp air was bracing, and the yards looked beautiful covered in their white blankets.  Sometimes, when the schools and businesses closed, John and I would pile in the car with a snow shovel and take off to drive around the lakes.  Ah, youth. We never worried we’d get stuck.  We’d shovel and rock the car until we broke free.  When we got older, we bought a snow blower.  We still got out and about unless there was ice.

I don’t like the feeling of no control when my car goes into a skid.  My grandsons, however, headed to the biggest parking lots to do donuts with my old, beat-up Ford, enjoying the spinning and sliding.  And now that the kids are grown and gone, we’re retired, and we can watch snow fall and deal with it when we get around to it.  There’s no sense of urgency.  So, for the coming week, snow and bitter cold mean filling the bird feeders and snuggling up inside, spending more time writing and reading.

First, we’re finally taking down our Christmas decorations.  The kids made it up last weekend, so the tree and wreathes have served their purpose.  John and I are going to store things away for next year, then bake a coffee cake together.  The fridge is stocked with plenty of food.  No worries we’ll starve.

I’m going to work in more writing time than usual.  I’m halfway through my free supernatural mystery for my webpage, and I’d like to write a chunk of chapters ahead.  John went to the library and has a pile of books to read.  I’m expecting a manuscript to critique.  Never work.  I love Julia Donner’s historical novels.  This one’s a Western.  I can’t wait to read it.

All in all, dear hubby and I are ready for a quiet, easy week, staying home and cocooning.  Hope you find some solid writing time, too.

 

 

Mysteries

In my first mystery, The Body in the Attic, I meant to write an Agatha Christie type murder where a body is found in the first chapter and then countless witnesses and suspects are introduced until the murder is solved.  That was my intent.  And I didn’t quite stick to it.  But I just finished reading Mary Angela’s A VERY MERRY MURDER.  She purposely structured her book to be like a Christie novel, and she pulled it off.  She even used a Christie story for her protagonist, Professor Emmeline Prather, to teach in her Crime and Passion English class–an elective class that focused on mysteries and romances.  Even better, Angela used the same murder technique for the current mystery that Christie used in hers.  If you’re a Christie fan, it was awesome!

Such attention to detail, alas, I didn’t manage.  I discovered poor Aunt Lynda’s body in the first chapter, yes, but then I introduced a subplot that intrigued me a little too much, and before long, another body was required to move the plot along.  Which, I have to admit, I was pretty happy with.  Which shows that even if you outline, like I do, the best laid plans can go awry.

In my second mystery, The Body in the Wetlands, bodies seemed to pile up without my even trying.  One murder leads to the next and the one after that until Jazzi and Ansel, along with Detective Gaff, finally catch the killer.  The moral of the story?  Try never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And of course, there’s another dog in this story.  I grew quite fond of Cocoa, the chocolate Lab.

I’ve been reading quite a few mysteries lately, and back when I read Christie, the actual murder and puzzle are what made me turn the pages.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed Miss Marple and Poirot.  And Christie could draw a character in only a few brush strokes, so I “knew” them–what motivated them–but didn’t get to know them, if that makes any sense.  Lately, though, I’m every bit as interested in the characters in the story, who they are and what they’re doing, and I’m disappointed if they’re not filled out more.

I liked Mary Angela’s professor and how seriously she took teaching college students who often weren’t as motivated as she was.  I enjoyed the budding romance between Enmeline and Lenny, and I loved the widow who lived across the street and didn’t miss anything.  She was a whiz at baking and let Emmeline know her Christmas cookies were inferior.  All fun stuff that added layers to the story.

I guess, these days, I enjoy lots of different kinds of stories hung on a mystery plot.  The only time I’m disappointed is when the end of the mystery–how it’s solved and whodunnit–aren’t handled well.  After all, it’s a mystery, even if the murder only serves as a foundation to wrap other subplots around.  But I expect a murder, clues, red herrings, and a satisfying conclusion.  The rest is all extras.  I don’t want a murderer pulled out of a hat or for the clues to not add up.  Other than that, I go along for what I hope is a fun ride.  Whatever you’re reading now, I hope it keeps you turning pages and you’re happy you read it when you close the book.

And happy writing!

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Recipes

My friend and fellow Kensington author, Mae Clair, guested on Esme Salon recently.  She wrote a fun post about the ingredients needed to write a good book and her recipe for a dynamite tortellini salad.  (Well, sort of a recipe…maybe…I copied and pasted it in case you want to give it a try:)  You can find the entire post here:  https://esmesalon.com/guest-post-cooks-books-and-suspense/  And just in case you can’t wait to get in the kitchen, here’s the recipe:

Mae Clair’s No-Fail Tortellini Salad

  1. Mix a healthy dose of delusions with 1 cup of vigorous pep-talk.
  2. Remind yourself you’ve created complex characters and plots. How difficult can an oven/stove thingie be?
  3. Ignore spouse who reminds you about the “infamous cake fiasco” that resulted in one overly large, hockey puck-like biscotti. Apparently, there is a legitimate reason a box cake mix calls for water. Who knew?
  4. Settle for making a simple appetizer and breathe a sigh of relief.
  5. Ignore husband when he comments the last appetizer you made should have been killed before it multiplied.
  6. Blow the dust off cookbooks and search for an appetizer recipe.
  7. Turn deaf ear to the husband who suggests you have yet to outgrow the adult supervision stage.
  8. Decide you’d rather spend your time writing than crushing tortilla chips and slicing up fat black olives. Celebrate with a glass of wine.
  9. Head for your nearest gourmet deli and clean them out of tortellini salad.
  10. For the highly skilled (I wouldn’t suggest something this complex on the first try): place tortellini salad in a festive bowl and pass off as your own. Blank expressions and stammering rarely work when someone asks for the recipe. The best you can hope for is a diversion. Fainting usually does the trick

Now Mae’s recipe was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but for my new mystery series, my editor asked me to include two recipes for the first book.  I have more recipes than any file folder can hold, but I always worry about how much I have to tinker with them to make them mine.  I love puttering in the kitchen, but my two sisters have never met a stove/thingie they like.  Even if I do the cooking, they don’t like it when I get too “chefy.”  So, I was curious how other authors who write “food” mysteries handled the cooking and recipes.  To find out, I’ve been reading a lot of them.

I just finished The Diva Runs Out of Thyme by Krista Davis.  Clever, huh?  Davis combines cooking, characters, the mystery, and more twists and turns than San Francisco’s Lombard Street.  It was the first book in her Diva series, and I plan to buy more.  I was relieved to see that she included only two recipes at the back of the book, but she DID include lots of Martha Stewart type entertaining and decorating tips.  I got hooked on food mysteries when I first discovered Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear’s catering novels.  When Goldy catered an event, Davidson included most or all of the recipes.  Shirley Jump–who used to live in my city and was a gracious hostess for writing get-togethers–wrote a series of Sweet and Savory romances, starting with The Bride Wore Chocolate, where she shared a witty recipe at the end of every chapter.  (She said she gained weight testing them all).

Anyway, this is my question.  When a writer includes recipes in a novel, have any of you tried them out?  How many recipes do you expect at the end of a book?  Can a writer include too many?  Do you prefer simple recipes to complicated ones?

For now, I’ve moved on to reading No Cats Allowed, a Cat in the Stacks mystery by Miranda James.  Cats and librarians.  How can you beat that?

Whatever you’re reading now, I hope you enjoy it.  And happy writing!

 

Doggone!

Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty good about my writing.  I’m happy with how my two finished mysteries turned out.  Of course, no one’s seen them but my critique partners and my editor, so I haven’t had to deal with reviews yet–and that might be part of it.  I’m getting better at accepting bad reviews, though.  Most writers get them.  Books I really liked hit some other reader the wrong way.  We all have different tastes.  Anyway, at the moment, I’ve been happily hitting my keys–until–doggone!–I bought Elizabeth George’s newest mystery, THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES.

I’ve been an Elizabeth George fan since I read her first book–A GREAT DELIVERANCE.  That book blew me away.  Her books have gotten longer (THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES is 704 pages) and further between, so I usually have to wait at least a year or two before the next one comes out.  For some reason, in my opinion, they got gloomier, too.  George writes characters really well, and her writing itself is beautiful to behold.  I finally reached a point, though, where I fizzled before I finished one of her books because it was so depressing.  Did that stop me from buying her next book?  Of course not!  Thankfully, though, this new book breathes with great dialogue, characters who spring off the pages, and the occasional humor.  I think it’s her best novel yet.

As always when I read George, I toyed with the idea of adding a little more weight to my writing and my characters, but I decided against it.  I’ll never be an Elizabeth George.  I’ll never have her gravitas, and let’s face it, I’ll never have enough patience to write 700 pages.  I’ll never be like Jenna Bennett, either, with her sense of flippancy and daredevil jump-feet-first into things.  And maybe that’s why I’m happier with my own writing than I used to be.  I still want to improve.  I still want to write my story the best I can.  But I can admire and enjoy all kinds of other writers and learn from them while knowing that what makes my writing what it is, is ME.

We each bring our own voice, our own style to what we write.  Whatever you’re working on, good luck.  And happy writing!

 

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