Who Doesn’t Love Libraries and Author Panels?

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To some authors, promoting their books can be tedious and demoralizing, but last week I was pleased to take part in two types of book promotion I enjoy, and they were at the same event.

Three panelists and our moderator gathered in a small upstairs room at the Ella McClatchy Library in downtown Sacramento to chat with a room full of book enthusiasts. The audience asked lots of questions and then stuck around until closing time to talk with us about all things book related, which happened to be the panelists’ favorite subject as well.

Prior to the event, our moderator sent us some of the topics we’d be talking about. Several of the questions had a slightly different spin than I’d answered before and I thought you might be interested.

What led you to choose murder as your subject?

The simple answer is that when you’re writing about murder, you’re writing about the ultimate “high stakes.” For my mystery short stories, I explore what combination of events could turn an ordinary person into a murderer. With my series, the murder is more of a jumping off point. My driving force has been to explore a social issue through that medium, and my characters’ journeys are as important as the plot.

How do you research your kind of murder?

The murder has to have its own personality and a specific reason for that particular type of murder weapon. While researching a historical component in Close Up on Murder, the second in my Spirit Lake series—set in contemporary times—I devised a symbolic murder and not one you’ll often read.

In my third, Blow Up on Murder, the weapon is specific to a type of technology and I had a lot of fun researching that.

My go-to research tools are Google, Google images, I talk to experts, visit libraries, watch videos and related movies, read magazine articles, etc. Whatever I need to do for the story to be believable. Only a small percentage of what I’ve learned gets into the story, just enough to make the situation seem real and as accurate as I can make it.

The murders in my short stories—I have one in the 2017 Capitol Crimes Anthology and one in the 2013—are diabolical and devious. In both cases, the stories took an unexpected turn based on what popped up through research.

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 What influenced you as you created your characters?

In my Spirit Lake series, I created a woman in a tough field. She’s a photojournalist with insatiable curiosity and a strong sense of right and wrong, who covers war and disasters worldwide. I wanted to explore how she is perceived in her working world, where her assertiveness and drive are applauded, and contrast that with how she’s viewed in the small town of Spirit Lake, by her brother, the man she loves and old friends, who think she’s reckless and foolish. And also how she deals with wanting to go on the dangerous assignments to show the world how it impacts the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly, while feeling torn about leaving her loved ones and her guilt for worrying them.

The setting of my series is a small town in Northern Minnesota near an Indian reservation. Native American culture plays an important role in the area and I wanted to pay homage by creating several recurring Ojibwe characters.

Some characters only appear in one book and a random magazine photo will spark a character. That happened in my latest, Blow Up on Murder, and that added an unexpected dimension to the story.

My short stories usually start with asking myself what would cause an ordinary-seeming person to act completely out of character. In The Good Gardener, my story in the Capitol Crimes 2017 anthology, I wondered how far a middle-aged woman who was a loving wife, doting mother, avid gardener and steadfast employee would go to hang on to what she thought she deserved. It was an interesting set up for me as an author to explore.

Do you get depressed writing about death?

My mysteries begin when a social ill haunts me. It angers rather than depresses me, and by writing about it, I work through some of those feelings. Although I write my series from my protagonist’s point of view, I also delve into what the other characters are experiencing. The bad guys in my books always believe their actions are justified so I have to imagine what that perspective would be like.

Do you describe police procedures? If not, what kind of investigation does your character do?

My main character is a photojournalist, and in two of the books, she’s first to discover the murder. She knows better than to tamper with a scene, but takes photographs before the authorities arrive. As a writer, I have to know enough about police procedures, the FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and tribal police, and how those entities interact, to be able to accurately write about it. However, everything is seen through Britt’s eyes, and she’s not an expert on detailed forensic techniques.

What was the hardest thing you encountered when writing?

I love every aspect of writing a mystery or short story. I devour how-to advice on craft and am grateful for all those authors who share what they’ve learned. The initial excitement of a budding idea gives me enough steam to begin what will be at least a year-long project. Even though the middle can be daunting, I’ve found that if you get that right, it enriches the entire story. It might even be the most important. And yes, I even enjoy the rewriting and final editing.

What do you do for inspiration?

Inspiration can happen anywhere if your head is in the right place. When I go for walks with my dog, she’s aware of every smell, sound and movement around her. I’ve tried mimicking her. When she stops to sniff something on the ground, I put my own nose into a bush or tree at my level even though my sense of smell isn’t the greatest. If my dog hears something that excites her, I try to listen hard with that same head-raised alertness. It’s great practice for being in the moment, that place where ideas have room to bloom.

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Books inspire me, and online articles or newspapers and magazines. I especially like Wired for the technology information. I watch television. Lately Outlaw Tech is my favorite.

When a subject catches my imagination I go for it. Then the research leads to more research, and as I write, characters show up as needed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my creative process. I’m curious to hear how you might respond to some of these questions, or questions you’d like me to answer. Let’s hear it!

 

 

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An All-consuming Year

This year I’ve been consumed by

  • Politics—how does a country go from the grace and dignity of Obama to Trump?
  • Capitol Crimes 2017 Anthology. Chairing  an anthology of short stories for my local chapter of Sisters in Crime was time-consuming but rewarding, and I was thrilled to have my submission included

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  • House hunting—looking to downsize
  • Family and friends—healthy and happy for the most part—a blessing
  • Pets—both rescues, Sox is velvety, loves to play and taunt Shooz, our puppy. Now a year old, Shooz keeps me running, climbing under beds to retrieve toys, playing tug with her, throwing the ball, and so on. They bring me joy

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  • Blow Up on Murder—trying to make my latest Spirit Lake Mystery the best I can

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Always Incomplete

My book is not quite complete. I’d hoped to have it published in 2016 but time has gotten away from me. My new projection is that January will be the magic month. Shooz continues to yank me nearly off my feet when we pass other dogs on our walks, so more training is needed. She’s still afraid of men in hats and I’m not sure how to deal with that. My concern over the political situation disturbs me hourly, and it’s harder than ever to watch the news. We haven’t found a house yet, but will keep looking.  I’m grateful for family and friends who are nearby, yet always missing the ones far away.

And yet, if I know one thing about life, it’s that in order to thrive, we need to embrace the incompleteness because that’s where possibilities lie. Possibility sparks curiosity, curiosity engages imagination, imagination triggers action and action stirs up the magic.

Wishing you all a healthy, happy, prosperous and magical 2017.

 

I’m Ready

For me, this song is about letting go. It’s time to send my second mystery to my beta readers—a huge place of resistance for me. I could easily work on it forever, and almost did that with my first book, just to avoid this step.

For inspiration this morning, I read a chapter about the Inner Censor in Dani Shapiro’s wonderful book, Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Her words didn’t derail me, but their effect was probably the opposite of what she intended.

Shapiro said that when her inner censor wants to shut down her creativity, she says things like: “Maybe you should try writing something more commercial. You know, thrillers are hot. Why not write a thriller? Or at least a mystery? ……Why not write a book with a strong female protagonist, for a change? You know, a superheroine.”

Her statement assumes that the reason those of us who write thrillers or mysteries do it because they are commercial, and that those works are somehow less worthy.

I can’t speak for other mystery writers, but I didn’t do it expecting to sell lots of books. These days, especially starting out, it’s a rare writer who does.

I did it because my main character Britt spoke to me. How would a female photojournalist with a strong sense of justice and responsibility reconcile her personal desire to be home and surrounded by her loved ones, with her professional calling—to document the suffering of the vulnerable of the world, usually women and children?

And how would that conflict come into play as she navigates a deadly encounter with an avenging killer stalking her and her brother over a decades-old crime—the core of the mystery. The character-driven puzzle drove me.

In writing a series with a “strong female, almost a superheroine,” I have been challenged and my protagonist has changed me. She’s made me a stronger person, and a better writer as I struggle to find the right combinations of words, setting, characters and situations to understand her and show who she is and how she affects and is affected by her world. She’s drawn things from me I didn’t know were there.

When you place characters in life-changing or life-threatening situations, you learn what they’re made of.

Life is a mystery. We’re all navigating it the best we can, and sometimes our inner (and outer) censors can be motivating.

What songs, mantras or books inspire you to move forward with your creative projects? What steps block you and how do you overcome them?

Let Your Brain(s) Co-mingle

This writing journey is the best thing I’ve done for myself in years. I’m not saying I’ve figured it all out, but the one thing I do every day is sit at my laptop and work on my manuscript. It brings me joy and it’s important to me to do the best I can. Everything else slips away.

Rarely does any part of the writing or editing frustrate me; it intrigues me when I come up against a situation that isn’t working or could be communicated more effectively. Writing mysteries employs my analytical brain and my creative brain. I used to think one or the other had to be in charge. One brain had the ideas, the other organized and honed the story. But I no longer believe that to be true for me. My two brains co-mingle like crazy, and when I get up from my chair, I’m satisfied I’ve given it my all.
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It’s been a few weeks since I last posted a blog, due to my busy schedule and scattershot method of letting people know about my writing journey. Unlike writing a mystery, participating in social media involves a different motivation, and for me that’s tied up with being a bit of an introvert, suffering from an occasional lack of confidence and overcoming the learning curve in some of the technical areas. But my overriding desire is to keep in touch with you, and hope you’ll do the same with me.

Today Steven Pressfield’s blog Why #4 was the motivation I needed, and I’m betting it will inspire you as well, no matter what your calling or where you are on your journey.

Keeping Art and Writing Fresh

Linda Townsdin

Linda Townsdin

Writing and making art have always played important roles in my creative life. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on my mystery series—creating images with words instead of paint.

My dear friend, Julie Williams, a wonderful artist and writer, recently sent me a gift of watercolor art materials and told me about a technique she thought I’d enjoy. She was right. I always love trying something new.

Not long ago, encaustic painting captured my imagination and I created the piece above. For those unfamiliar with encaustic art, the medium is hot (or cold) wax and pigments. I did this piece using hot wax on glass.

For me, the back and forth between visual art and writing has been a way to refresh my spirit, and it always enhances my work. I know many writers who read this blog are also musicians, artists, photographers, etc. I’d love to hear how combining your creative activities keeps you inspired.