Two at a Time

I’ve made it to the halfway point of my second Lux novel.  I enjoy Lux.  She does things I’d never do.  Never.  I gave her stuff I always thought I wanted, but didn’t need.  She has lots of money.  I gave up thinking I’d win the lottery a long time ago.  She drives a yellow Bentley.  I saw a Bentley at a car show in Auburn years ago and still tease that if I had a longer garage, and I won that lottery someday, I’d buy one.  I probably wouldn’t.  I don’t like to call attention to myself, and it’s pretty hard to drive a Bentley incognito, especially when you live in a cozy bungalow in a small community.  Lux is daring, and I’m not.  She pushes the envelope, and I don’t.  So it’s fun to write about her.

And then there’s Hester, my witch from Muddy River.  She’s a teacher at the school for young witches and loves teaching as much as I did.  But she has power.  Real power.  And that’s what makes her fun.  I avoid power when possible.  It comes with responsibility.  And that means work.  So I live vicariously through Hester instead.  She and Raven only flex their magic muscles to make things better.  And that makes me like them.

As much as I love Lux, I lose steam on any novel once I reach the middle.  Yes, I have plot points.  I know what happens in every chapter, but the longer a book goes, the more clues and subplots there are to keep in mind.  And they keep getting more and more complicated.  And my writing slows down.  So that’s why I started a new Muddy River short read.  I start the day writing about Lux, finish a scene, and then need time to process everything–which takes me a minute.  So that’s when I switch and start working on Hester and Raven.  The scenes are shorter and I can sometimes finish one by the time I quit writing for the day.  By trading off, I get more work done.

I’ve tried and can’t switch off to working on Jazzi.  Writing two different mysteries at the same time gets too confusing for me.  Lux and Hester are different enough, I can keep the characters and plots straight.

I got the idea of two at a time from C.S. Boyack.  And as long as the series are different enough, it works for me.  My critique partner and writer friend just shook her head when I told her about it.  She tried and got less writing done than usual.  It’s not for her.  It doesn’t work for everyone.  But for now, when I’m in the middle of Lux and the set-up for Hester and Raven, it keeps my writing fresh. Wish me luck.

And whatever you’re up to, good luck to you, too.  And here’s wishing that you have a wonderful July.  Can you believe half a year is over already?  Happy Writing!

Grannies

In my books, I love Jazzi’s grandmother.  She’s the one who taught Jazzi how to cook.  When Jazzi was a little girl, she’d go to spend a weekend with her once in a while, and they’d fiddle in the kitchen together.   But Gran has reached the age where she’s beginning to be forgetful and sometimes gets addled.  It’s a mild case, though, and another woman whose husband died has moved into the farmhouse with her.  Samantha couldn’t keep up her large house and property after she was widowed, so she and Gran have teamed up together.  It suits them both.

I should also add that Gran has the gift of sight.  More often than not, it’s hard to decipher and confuses Jazzi more than helps when Gran first announces a bit of information, but in the end, Gran’s always right.  Ansel has a soft spot for her and is happy to fetch her a glass of red wine when she comes for Sunday meals.

In Lux 2–the book I’m working on now–Lux isn’t close to either set of her grandparents and never mentions them, but Keon knows his grandmother all too well.  All five of the Johnson siblings dread spending time with her.  She’s caustic and demanding.  This sounds horrible, but I fashioned her after both of my grandmas but made her worse.  My grannies were both tough, old birds.  After my dad’s father died, his mom sat on the couch every day, eating bananas and reading True Confession magazines.  My parents dragged us to her house every other weekend while they worked to keep her house in order.  If we tried to talk to grandma to pass the time, she’d wave us away.  Once, she threw a book at my sister’s head.  I used that in a story.

My mom’s mother looked like a sweet, old lady.  She wore her snow white hair pulled back in a bun, and her dark brown eyes sparkled, just not often with humor.  I have to give her credit.  She survived the depression with four kids, sometimes without enough food to make them supper.  She’d tell them to go to bed early.  Then, when her money got better and she moved to our hometown, her daughter caught diphtheria and went deaf.  She had a hard life and never trusted that it would get easier.  I respected her, but she wasn’t the type to spend pleasant afternoons with or cuddle.

I wanted to show both types of grandmas.  Jazzi got lucky.  Keon, not so much.  But family bonds are strong, even when they chafe, so when Keon’s grannie breaks her hip and falls, Keon’s dad brings her to Summit City to live with him and his wife.  And no one can see any good coming of that.  But it’s hard to decide what to do when your parents reach an age that they can’t care for themselves anymore.  It’s often an agonizing decision to put them in a nursing home, especially if they don’t want to go there.  Often, though, there aren’t any good options.  No matter what you decide, it doesn’t feel good.  I wanted to show that, too.

I’m talking about grannies when my books are mysteries, but the characters in the books don’t just solve crimes.  They work, entertain, and visit friends.  And they have families.  If you’re writing, I hope your characters are walking and talking on the pages for you.  And happy writing!

 

Mystery Musings

I’m working on my second Lux mystery, and I’ve finally reached 19,000 words.  I’ve finished the first fourth of the book, and for now, I’m happy with it.   I’ve introduced the book’s big question (who committed the murder since it’s a mystery) and a subplot (The Johnson siblings’ grandmother is moving to Summit City to live with their mom and dad, and no one’s happy about it).  Grandma Johnson is a bitter, outspoken woman, who fell and broke her hip, so she needs care until she’s better, maybe for the rest of her days.  Lux, a freelance writer, is working on an article on aging, so Grandma Johnson ties into the research she’s doing for it.

Lux gets involved in solving the book’s murder because the victim is Cook’s nephew.  Cook worked for Lux’s parents and was always there for her.  She loves Cook so much that she convinces her to move to Summit City, too, along with her oldest sister.  Things get complicated when Cook’s nephew’s body is found in one of Lux’s storage units.  He was murdered while he was stealing things from her.

I always enjoy writing the set-up of a book.  That’s when I try to make my characters come to life as I throw them into the story.  It’s where I try to plant readers in the setting and describe the house, town, and surroundings through action.  And it’s where the important changes happen in my protagonist’s life that make her take action to fix things.

In my first Lux book, I started with more background information than usual.  I felt that the story needed it.  But usually, I tread lightly when sprinkling background into my writing.  I need to know all of that information, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need much of it.  C.S. Boyack wrote a great post on this for Story Empire.  He showed the drip, drip, drip method of feeding readers information.  Writers can go from sparse to a lot more.  I often end up in the middle.  Here’s Craig’s article:

https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/case-study-the-mandalorian/

I’m now heading into the second fourth of the book.  Lux is ready to dig into finding clues and making things work.  Of course, ten or so chapters from now when I reach the middle of the plot line, there’ll be another twist and she’ll have to shift directions.  Nothing can be that easy for a protagonist.  So she’ll be keeping me busy for a while now.  And that’s the joy of writing.  One fourth of the novel done.  Three-fourths to go.  And so far, the middle muddle hasn’t slowed me down.

Family

Our family is small.  HH’s parents are gone.  So are mine.  I have two sisters…sorry, one now…I’m not used to saying that.  My younger sister died a little over a week ago.  Neither of them married.  HH has one brother.  He married, but he and Stephen had no children before they separated.  We have two daughters, but my younger and her husband decided against children, too.  My older has two boys, grown now, and one of them recently married.  But that’s it.  If we have a “big” family get-together, there are only eight people.

My aunts and uncles are all gone.  So are HH’s.  We have cousins scattered somewhere but haven’t kept in touch.  At my grandson’s wedding, the “groom’s” side of the room was filled with lots of family friends, but hardly any family.  We shake our heads once in a while at our puny size, but we make up for it in how much we care about each other.

When HH and I first got married, it was easy to fill our house with over twenty people with our parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Not any more.  But in the books I write, families are important cores of the stories, even if in Muddy River, “families” are supernaturals who came together to escape being hunted and bonded to protect themselves.

Jazzi, in her series, invites her family and a few chosen friends to her house every Sunday for a family meal.  Each week, they get together to stay in touch and catch up on each others’ lives.  When HH and I first got married, my dad insisted that we take turns cooking suppers with them every Thursday night.  Mom cooked one week.  I cooked the next.  He told us that if we didn’t, it got easier and easier to drift apart.  We were happy to see Mom and Dad and my two sisters every Thursday.  The only problem?  I’d never learned to cook.  I had to plan ahead when it was my turn so that they’d have something edible.

Both sides of my family had reunions once a year.  So did one side of HH’s family.  We met uncles and aunts we only slightly knew and cousins we only talked to occasionally.  There are no more reunions for either of us.  Not any of my friends attend any either.  Maybe reunions got too hard to do when families moved farther and farther apart.

In my Lux series, Lux was an only child, and she lost both of her parents soon after she graduated from college.  But the Johnson family “adopted” her, and she grew so close to them that she moved to Summit City when the four oldest Johnson siblings moved there.  They’re the family she never had.  In the second Lux book that I’m working on now, even her beloved Cook moves to be close to her.

Family isn’t always the people who share your bloodline.  Sometimes, when you move to a new city, they’re the people who share your heart.  In all three of my new series, family plays a big part in the storylines.  Probably because it’s so important to me.  What about you?  Are you close to your families?  Do you still have reunions?

Whatever you’re working on, happy writing!

Writing Helps Center Me

Writing has made me a better person.  I don’t do well sitting and relaxing and having too much time to think.  I’m not sure what that says about me or my disposition, but I get antsy and grumpy with too much free time.  Cooking relaxes me, makes me happy.  So does writing.  Both, for me, are creative outlets.  Maybe that’s why I have trouble writing the same types of books back to back or cooking the same things over and over again.  I get bored.

I’m used to cooking and writing with lots of distractions.  Actually, when the phone’s ringing off the hook or people are underfoot, both activities keep me from snapping at anyone.  Or at least, I snap less.  This week has been particularly chaotic.  My younger sister died on Sunday morning.  She’s been on oxygen 24/7 for a long time with diabetes she didn’t control very well.  She lost more and more energy and strength until lately, she got winded just talking on the phone.  She went into the hospital Saturday night, had tests, was teasing nurses at 8:30 a.m. when they came to take her vitals, saw her heart doctor, and half an hour later, fell asleep and didn’t wake up.  The doctor said when her  pulse tanked and her alarm beeped, he was only twenty steps away from her, raced into her room, and she sighed and smiled, and that was that.  I’m happy for her.  When it’s my time to go, I hope I get that lucky.

Neither of my two sisters married, though, and they bought houses next to each other.  My youngest sister–twelve years younger than I am–is whom I feel sorry for.  She’s going to REALLY miss Patty.  She told me she feels so alone now.  We only live ten minutes apart, but I’m not the same.  And I understand that.  My two sisters were a team.  Now the team’s down to one player.

I know from watching friends, losing someone really close to you can shut you down and nothing brings comfort until you can work through your grief and come out on the other side.  That’s where my sister is now.  So I’ve told her to call me as many times in a day as she wants to.  I’ve told her when she needs help with anything, I’m here.  And she’s called a lot.  And that’s good.  Because when I hang up the phone or return home, I write or work on something that’s writing related.  And I center myself.  She’s lost.  For now, I have my husband, my writing, and my cooking, and I’m okay.

I sound a bit like a fraud, like I should be mourning more, too, but things were only going to get worse for Patty.  And I’m glad she was spared that.  My dad died from multiple myeloma, and it took years.   When he died, his spine and skull looked like they’d been riddled with moths, full of holes.  If I could have, I’d have spared him that.  My mom died of Alzheimer’s, and that took ten years.  It was worse.  Dad was still dad until he let out his last breath.  Mom lost being mom along her journey.  But just because quality of life goes away, health can make people linger.  Patty didn’t have to.  When her quality of life could have taken a real nosedive, she got to leave.  That’s what I focus on.

I have friends who are atheists, agnostics, Jewish, you name it…and I respect their beliefs…but I firmly believe in life after death.  So I picture Patty in heaven with Mom and Dad and all of her pets, and I picture her flying.  She always wanted wings.  I doubt that they’re pure white, but I bet they’re fun.  Patty’s free, so it’s my youngest sister who needs me now.  Grief takes a long time, usually at least a year, but I’m determined to be there for her.  At least, as much as she’ll let me.  My family’s a stubborn lot.

And when things get to me, I’ll write.  Or cook.  I hope you find your happy spot.  And happy writing.

Best Sellers

I read In The Market for Murder by T. E. Kinsey and really enjoyed visiting Lady Hardcastle and her kung-fu maid, Florence, a second time.  Humor permeates these books.  This one takes place in 1909, but Lady Hardcastle is way ahead of her times, always pushing the boundaries and solving crimes.  The mysteries–three in this book that seem separate but are all connected–are solid.  I like it when I read a mystery and the mystery is a decent part of the plot and well thought out.  These are.

I bought the first book in this series because I looked at the top 100 mysteries for some category and noticed not one or two, but FIVE of T. E. Kinsey’s mysteries listed.  And they were historical.  Always a plus for me.  So I decided to try one.  And I found it extremely entertaining.  Which surprised me.  In my mind, I had decided that best-selling books had to be weighty and serious.  Lady Hardcastle is NOT serious.  Neither is her maid, Florence.  They take potshots at each other and enjoy it tremendously.  Lady Hardcastle enjoys brandy…often.  And when stressed or bored, Florence fills the kitchen with so many cakes, they have to give most away.

In this particular Lady Hardcastle mystery, sleights of hand play a big part.  There’s a séance that might or might not be legit.  Trophies disappear from a case but the thief didn’t leave the premises.  All clever.  All fun.  And the books are hugely popular.  As they should be.

My theory that bestsellers have to involve angst, character growth, and a certain amount of suffering hasn’t proven true in this case.  The stakes didn’t make me lose sleep.  I fell asleep smiling.  And I love it!

I hope whatever you’re working on is going well, and enjoy this LAST week of May.  I can’t believe it.  It’s almost June–which I love.  But where did the time go?  Again?

 

 

Mystery Musings

I read a twitter post that made me happy.  Lynn Cahoon is coming out with a new series, The Kitchen Witch.  I’m a fan of her Tourist Trap mysteries.  Add a witch to her whodunnits, and I’m in.  I have a soft spot for nice witches and magic.

Way, way back when I wrote urban fantasies as Judith Post, I wrote a lot of Babet & Prosper short reads.  Babet was a witch, and Prosper was a bear shifter and a detective for supernatural crimes.  They lived in a city with a feel a bit like New Orleans.  I wrote them mostly for fun, like I write Muddy River now as Judi Lynn.  When I signed with Kensington to write romances, though, I left all of my urban fantasy behind.

After I wrote six Mill Pond romances, my editor let me try writing a cozy mystery, and that’s how the Jazzi Zanders mysteries came to be.  But I missed the world of magic, and I noticed there were a lot of witch and wizard mysteries making their way onto Amazon.  I bought and enjoyed quite a few of them–witches who worked in chocolate shops, in bakeries, in small towns.  A lot of them had art for covers instead of models.  Paintings of witches with black, pointy hats and black dresses.  A lot of them were fun, light-hearted mysteries, and I enjoy them.

That’s not what I wrote when I started Muddy River, though.  And that’s probably a marketing mistake, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to write humor.  I used it in my first romance–COOKING UP TROUBLE, because I didn’t have much confidence that I could write romance either:)  I’m still not sure either is my strong point.  Mae Clair, who wrote the Hode’s Hill suspense series that I love, turned to humor for her short read, IN SEARCH OF McDOOGLE, and she nailed it.  McDoogle was the perfect read for the end of a long, tiring day.

I like humor.  Sometimes, I’m even funny.  I’m just not a natural at it.  But I’ve noticed that it works really well with good witches.  And when Lynn Cahoon’s book comes out late August, I’m looking forward to see what her witch is up to.

 

How Much Tension Do You Want?

I’ve been yakking about Ilona Andrews’s SAPPHIRE FLAMES since I finished reading it.  The book and the writing have stayed me with a while.  It made me think about a lot of different things.  And tension is one of them.

Since I’ve been writing cozies for a while now, I’ve been working on making page turns rely on different dynamics than fighting terrible odds, supernatural monsters, serial killers, or ticking clocks.  Cozies have a quieter tension–discovering clues and adding them up, ignoring red herrings, and discovering the killer before the protagonist does.  Every story has to have conflict, but in cozies, it could be trying to worm a secret out of someone you’re questioning, trying to add up evidence to get closer to finding the killer.

One of the reasons I like writing Muddy River is because the tension is about trying to survive or help someone else survive.  It’s about life and death.  Ilona Andrews uses that kind of conflict in her novels, only she ratchets it up to almost every scene.  And that’s the fun of reading her.  I can’t turn the pages fast enough to see how her protagonists are going to survive another battle against an even stronger opponent.  Muddy River doesn’t do that.  There are battles, yes, but there “down” scenes, too, because I like the people and their lives and their dynamics together.

I like low-key tension as much as I like nail-biters.  Literary tension might be the one I struggle with most.  Inner conflict doesn’t grip me as much as it does my daughters.  My younger daughter says it’s her favorite.  Anyway, I’ve spent some time thinking about how to develop conflict and tension lately.  And these are just a few of my random thoughts, nothing deep or momentous, just ponderings:

  1.  Personal Stakes:  In literary reads, the entire plot might revolve around a person getting to know who they are and what they want of themselves and life and struggling to get that.  That internal struggle is what builds tension.  For example, a book could be about an alcoholic who’s trying to stop drinking.  No easy thing to do.  It could be about an abused child who’s trying to live an ordinary life as an adult and overcome the fears and defense mechanisms she developed to cope.  The emotional toll is high, and the stakes for finding happiness or even normalcy are high.  But they aren’t life or death.  The country won’t go into chaos if the hero doesn’t succeed.  There’s no ticking clock.  That’s why it’s personal, but we can all relate to them.
  2.   Low Stakes:  In romances, again, the stakes are personal.  The tension is driven by emotions, people hoping to find love.  Girl meets boy.  Attraction flares, but obstacles get in the way.  Can the two people overcome those obstacles and get together?  Stakes are low in cozies, too.  There’s a murder.  There’s a good reason the amateur sleuth gets involved in solving that murder.  He or she interviews people, looks for clues, and won’t be satisfied until he finds the truth.  In both of these types of books, the tension ebbs and flows.  It peaks when failure looms on the horizon, then dips when something new happens to advance the plot.  These books have rhythms and often revolve around four turning points in the story.  The protagonist might be in danger of failing to achieve his goal, but his life is rarely at risk.  There are “soft spots” for the reader to land before the next push forward.
  3. Medium Stakes:  I’d put straight mysteries in this category, adventure stories, some thrillers, and maybe most paranormals.  There’s more action.  There’s more possibility for physical harm.  The cost of failure isn’t just emotional, but maybe getting beat up, stabbed, or shot, too.  The person a cop or hero is trying to protect might die if the hero can’t stay a step ahead of the antagonist.  The hero might die trying to protect him.
  4.  High Stakes:  Every chapter brings a new danger.  There’s not one murder at the beginning of the book and maybe a second or third one later to keep up the pace.  High stakes is when the protagonist and the antagonist fight it out from the beginning of the book to the end, and the protagonist’s life is almost always in danger.  Often, there’s a ticking clock.  Sometimes, the battle starts small–like in women in jeopardy novels–and escalates to the end.  Always, the tension builds from the first chapter to the last.  Everything intensifies.  Often, the protagonist loses someone he’s close to or cares about.  The stakes have to be high.
  5.   Ilona Andrews’s Urban Fantasies:  The stakes are off the chart.  The opponents take off their gloves at the beginning of the book and duke it out over and over again until the stakes are so high, you’re wrung out by the time you finish the last page.  And everything in the stories create tension:  a.  almost every conversation is fraught with tension.  People disagree, argue, threaten each other, try to outmaneuver each other, and try to worm information from one another.   b.  romantic tension:  the attraction between the protagonist and her love interest almost feels like sparring; the physical attraction is off the charts, but one or both of them resist it  c. the clashes build bigger and more dangerous from the first to the final, BIG do-or-die battle.

No matter what kind of book you write, the stakes have to keep getting higher.  The protagonist has to have more to lose.  Unless you write humor.  And in all honesty, I’ve never done it, don’t read much of it, and I just don’t know:)  (Except I did read Mae Clair’s IN SEARCH OF McDOODLE and loved it).  But whatever you’re working on now, good luck and happy writing!

Mystery Musings

HH and I watch The Voice on TV on Monday nights.  Neither of us know anything about music.  We just enjoy it.  And this year, we enjoyed the show more than usual.  For one thing, it was only on Monday nights instead of Monday and Tuesday.  So we didn’t get as tired of it as we did some years.  It felt as though there were more talented singers competing than usual, too.

Maybe because there was so much talent, we became more aware than ever that the people who moved on in the competition were the ones who made the right song choices.  We listened to singers do a wonderful job when they performed, but the next singer chose something with a little more drama, a little more range or flare.  And they won.  Singers, just like writers, have to come up with a little something extra to make them stand out from the crowd.

One way some of them do that is knowing what their strengths are and playing to them.  They know their weaknesses, too, and stay away from them.  The farther the singer goes in the competition, the harder it gets to move on.  Last week, a singer HH and I both thought would make it to the finale was sent home.  Why?  Because she picked the wrong song.  What she sang was good.  But it didn’t stand out.  Good isn’t good enough.  Same with writing.

At the end of the show, there’s only one winner.  The odds of winning a book contract, of finding readers who follow you, aren’t that cutthroat, but they’re sure hard.  I read a Q & A blog by Ilona Andrews once about how to write a query letter.  It’s been a while ago, but the thing I remember is that it advised the writer to identify what they wrote.  “I’m X, and I write urban fantasy.”  That way, editors and publishers know where to put you, what genre to market you in.  BUT then, emphasize what makes your urban fantasy stand out from the rest.  What makes it unique, instead of the same.

On The Voice, the best singer doesn’t always win.  The singer who connects to the audience and stands out has a good shot.  And there are singers who do a great job who are sent home.  One wrong choice, just one, and they’re gone.  That doesn’t mean their career is over.  It doesn’t mean they won’t go on to great success.  But it’s something to think about.  Some music is more popular than others.  Some types almost never win.  If a singer comes on the show and sings rock, I think the odds are against him or her making it to the finale.  A country singer has a better chance.  RB and pop, even folk, seem to fare better.  Opera?  Good luck with that.  When a writer decides on his or her niche, what sells is worth thinking about.

We’re not all going to be #1 on the charts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find success.  Good luck!

 

Smart Might Not Always Be Best. Maybe?

I pride myself on having some writing discipline.  When I finish writing one book, I already have ideas for the next book, and probably the one after that.  I usually let myself write the first chapter, sometimes even the first few chapters, before I make myself stop to work on plot points and character wheels.  I won’t let myself play with more chapters until I have enough plot points to finish the entire book.  I’ve learned the hard way that if I cheat, I pay for it later.  I’m SO not good at winging it.

All that said, my left brain and my right brain don’t always agree.  Some characters and some books pull at me even when I tell them to go away.  That’s how I am with Muddy River.  I have ALL of the plot points I need to write my next Lux mystery.  I’ve even started it, and I like it.  I’m excited about it.  I have 20 plot points for the first half of my 7th Jazzi mystery–the book I mean to write when I finish Lux.  And I’ve written the first chapter of that book, too.  And it feels good.

BUT…today I sat down and started a new Muddy River.  I couldn’t help it.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get excited enough about either of my other mysteries to push the stupid thing away.  Muddy River is where I let my imagination off its leash.  It’s NOT smart for me to write another supernatural mystery.  They’re not selling.  But my brain needs to have some fun before I devote myself to anything else.  And Muddy River, for me, is where that happens.

This time, and from now on, I’m compromising by not writing a full length book.  I’m going to aim for 40-60 pages and self-publish it as an Amazon Kindle short read.  I don’t need to write 300 pages to make my brain happy.  Just a short play time will do the trick.  I’m not expecting much to come from it, so I can’t be disappointed when it bombs like the others.  And that should worry me, right?  But it doesn’t.  I’m giving myself permission to write a few almost certain failures, because if I don’t, I’ll fizzle and burn out and my writing will become forced.  So, for the next week or more, I’m going to be fighting bounty hunters in Muddy River, battling shapeshifters and Succubi, and having a really good time.

Here’s hoping you’re enjoying yourself, too.  And happy writing.