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!

 

 

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.

 

And

In my Friday night writing group our prompt was to pick a word for the year as a guide and companion. The prompt was based on a blog Nevada City poet Molly Fisk wrote about finding a word as an alternative to a list of resolutions. It turned out to be the perfect catalyst for finding my own word for 2013.

My word was AND. It arrived with a pop after mulling over words like ALLOW and FLOW (as in go with the flow). I even considered some hyphenated words, like sovereign-self. I read that in a book and loved the idea of being a sovereign-self the way Native Americans have sovereign laws and lands.

I thought of choosing two words. WHAT and IF are two of my favorite word combos. WHAT IF is almost as good as AND.

I thought of my favorite phrases, but the process was getting away from me so I went back to the one word. The one true word to carry with me for an entire year.

My ego wanted a word that was unique and cool, so I tried to shake off AND. But no, the lowly and overused and much abused AND was my word. The AND of run-on sentences.

And yet, simply saying it out loud lifted my spirits.  I realized that AND has a higher calling, maybe even the highest calling of all words. It’s definitely loftier than OR and more decisive than BUT.

It’s inclusive. It means I can work on two novels simultaneously. I don’t have to choose. I could even work on three at once if I wanted to, and write short stories and prose poems and….

AND works across all areas of life. It brings relief to any obstacle or setback. I can feel sad AND know I’m still okay. It’s liberating to add any amount of them to wish lists and goals. It’s a word that means infinity, endless acceptance, endless adventure, experiences and possibilities.

Do you have a guiding word for 2013?

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Confuse Your Writing Muscles

I’ve been attending Kaia F.I.T., a women’s exercise program three mornings a week and am now on my fifth week. The philosophy is to confuse the muscles for improved strength and tone. You won’t find giant exercise machines jammed into the room. Sometimes we work with jump ropes or resistance bands or kettlebells or even huge tires. We run, do lunges, sit ups, squats, pushups and all variations of body work, sometimes individually, or with partners, and we often move from station to station, constantly changing from one type of exercise to another. The sessions work our brains as well, keeping track of variations in sequences and repetitions. Afterward, my body aches and yet I feel great because I’ve done something I didn’t know I could do. And I’m getting stronger every day.

What does a woman’s exercise program have to do with a blog about writing? I wondered what would happen if I applied the same philosophy to confuse my writing muscles.

Writers are advised to stick to a writing routine and never let anything deter us. But what if we mix it up and create a writing schedule that changes direction at intervals? I’m going to try it for one week and see what happens.

For example:

  • If you always journal in longhand at 7 am, head to the laptop and do a prompt or write a nonfiction piece
  • If you’re working on memoir, mystery, romance, literary, sci fi, historical, or poetry, do something entirely different like postcard fiction or flash fiction for twenty minutes
  • If you always write alone, call a friend to write with you
  • If you don’t have any writing friends, join a group
  • If you’re in a group, go on hiatus
  • If you write at a desk, take your laptop to the sofa or stand at a counter
  • If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo before, do it. You can start anytime

After a week, check in with yourself. Have you stretched your writing muscles? Are they a little rusty from disuse? Does it feel good to surprise yourself?

In the effort of full disclosure, I can’t take credit for jumping into a rigorous exercise routine all on my own. My daughter talked about how much fun it was and how all ages of women were involved. She encouraged me and invited me to a couple of tryout sessions, and when I was discouraged, she told me everyone had a hard time at first and that I was doing great and she was proud of me.

And that brings me to my last suggestion for today’s blog. If you don’t have someone in your life who pushes you a little, encourages you and believes in you, find someone like that or be that person for yourself.  Now get out there and get confused!

Voice is Everything

Before writing this piece, I dug through my bookshelves and checked the Internet for definitions of voice in fiction writing. I discovered that most writers needed anywhere from a paragraph to an entire book to define that one simple word. They talked about voice as the author’s style, personality, character, attitude or even point of view.

You don’t say I like the voice, you say I like the book.

Defining voice is difficult because it’s an abstract term.  When I’m reading a novel, if it grabs my attention, I don’t stop to analyze how the writer is handling voice. I am instantly lost in the story. If the writer’s voice is stilted, boring or derivative, I close the book.

Learning about voice through my critique group

I belong to a mystery writers’ critique group that includes traditional, fantasy, romance, police procedural, noir, thriller, suspense and more.

Until I started working with my group I had never analyzed voice other than to read about it in books and articles and wonder if my writing had it. We read five pages of each other’s work in progress and get together to talk in detail about what we like, how we feel about the characters, sequence of events or direction and what stands out as a red flag, not believable or out of context within those five pages. We ask lots of questions.

It’s valuable feedback for us to receive multiple perspectives at once. And here’s the surprise: I don’t even have to know who the writer is because I recognize the voice.

What I’ve learned is that a writer’s voice shows itself in different ways. One of the writers in my group writes wry, humorous noir stories in a sly and mischievous voice. Another writes fantasy in such a matter of fact way, the reader instantly loses any skepticism about the subject matter because the voice is so true and believes itself.

One writer knows her setting so well the reader automatically accepts it as a story you can trust, and another’s voice is defined by her extensive poetry background.

Having said all that, it’s still easier to hear another writer’s voice than my own, but one thing I have learned is that voice is everything and if it is distinctive and true, you keep reading.