Showing posts with label Susan Rogers Cooper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Susan Rogers Cooper. Show all posts

12 March 2018

Viva la difference

by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
As a female writing about a female character I feel it is all natural because I am a woman. I can put my head into the mind of a young woman or an older woman.

I also think I can write a fairly good representation of a male character. Mainly because I had two boys and I had a husband for almost 40 years who was a great teacher about men and how they think.

Of course, I'm not an expert because I have never been a man. I did mention good maybe not great.

However, through the years of reading I have run across writers who I think are able to write strong and excellent characters who happen to be of the opposite sex.

Susan Rogers Cooper has a male character, Milt Kovack, who is a sheriff. He is such a realistic male character that Susan has even relieved a fan letter chiding her for publishing under a woman's name. The fan swore she had to be a man.

I have to agree in part because I know Susan is a woman, but she does write a very realistic male.

On the other side, John Lutz writes very realistic women characters. They are strong, independent and certainly never depend on a male to rescue them.

Robert B. Parker also wrote strong women. He often got into philosophical discussions with women leaving them surprised.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly has written a new book, THE LATE SHOW, featuring  Detective Renee Ballard. This is a female character he fully intends to be a series character.

In the back of the book is an interview. The question is asked if he can describe Renee with one word. He has described Harry Bosch as "relentless." Michael says he knows a real-life homicide Detective Roberts that Renee is loosely based on and he would describe Roberts as "fierce," which is close to relentless.

A woman detective working in a job that is predominately male has to be better than her male co-workers in order to gain respect. She must be fierce.

I think this is true and yet to make a female character more realistic she should show a little vulnerability. Unless your plan is to have her be a bitch. Personally, I think Connelly has done a fine job with Detective Ballard.

Viva la difference.

12 June 2017

Suspension of Belief, too

by Jan Grape

I turned on my tablet a short time ago and read Leigh's post about suspending belief. Oddly enough I'd been working an article in my mind all day about suspended belief. Thank goodness my idea is a different take on the subject.

The idea of suspended belief has never really bothered me because as a voracious reader, every time I pick up a mystery, thriller, science fiction or even a western to read I know I'm going to suspend belief.

Do you really think that each time Jack Reacher goes to any new town he's always going find someone that needs his help? An underdog, often a vulnerable female needing him to go up against a  monstrous gang of bad guys he'll have to beat-up or better yet kill them all.

 Remember, Murder She Wrote. We all laugh and say, I don't want to go to Cabot Cove Maine.  Because in that quaint little beach town, that's the murder capitol of the world, I might find a body. Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher always did.

But we always suspend belief to read the story. As writers, we try very hard to make our mystery world as real as possible so our readers will absolutely suspend belief and read our books. One of the major strengths of a mystery story.

To make our character's world as real as possible we research our character's job. If it's law enforcement or private investigation or newspaper reporter or international spy we try our best to make that job sound as authentic as possible. It helps tremendously if we have actually worked in the field we are trying to portray. The lingo of the field is especially important.

If our character is an amateur sleuth it often helps if that character has a love of cooking or bird-watching or quilting or something that we also do ourselves. It can add to the "reality" of our story.

If as a writer we don't have the job or hobby experience then research, research, research. Naturally, life experience or life knowledge can help. All can be used when writing and setting up the suspension of belief for our readers.

Something I try to do, in my book especially, is to include as much "truth" as possible. A "universal truth," as my mystery writer friend, Susan Rogers Cooper and I call it, is often a good thing to include. For instance, if my female character is to pack for a four day trip, she notes that she only has three clean bras that are really nice enough for the trip. So she either has to go buy a new bra or two, plan to wash one on her trip or pack one of her old "house only" bras. Almost all women can relate. It is so true. A lot of men can't relate but, men probably won't mention what he is packing in his book.

 My main hope is when I do find a body someplace and write about it, you know I probably have not found a body our here in the Texas Hill Country but, you will believe me and suspend belief.

27 March 2017

Writing Like a Girl with Gayle Lynds

My inspiration for this column today is a post by Gayle Lynds which she posted to Rogue Women Writers yesterday and gave me permission go use here.

Today I was thinking about how mystery writing has changed and one big change that is one I welcome as more and more women are writing big thrillers and they are outstanding books. One such writer is my guest poster, Gayle Lynds. We don't often hear, "You write like a girl anymore." Or as my friend, and a previous fellow SleuthSayer, Susan Rogers Cooper, who got a letter almost daring her to prove she wasn't a man. He didn't think a woman was capable of writing a male protagonist like Milt Kovacks. Yet Susan still writes Milt novels and he is very definitely a strong male character.

Here Gayle Lynds talks about her inspiration.
— Jan Grape

Gayle Lynds
How The Jackal Became My Writerly Inspiration
by Gayle Lynds

In the mid 1980s I was writing and publishing not only literary short stories but books in a genre the industry considered among the lowest of the low — male pulp fiction.

Some called my ability to do both artistic range. But it puzzled and slightly offended others, and after a while I began to wonder myself — was there something wrong with me? Maybe I was literarily schizophrenic. Okay, let's ask the real questions: Who was I? What in heck did I think I was doing?

And then I got lucky and was able to dig deep. I found my muse, my inspiration, maybe it was really my siren's song — I stumbled on The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

What follows is a tale of hubris and, perhaps, redemption.

Published first in the United Kingdom in 1971, the novel dramatizes the desperate hunt for an international assassin hired by a secret paramilitary organization to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The assassin is so clandestine even his employers know him just by a code name – the Jackal.

From the French police inspector under unrelenting pressure to stop the Jackal, to the young war widow who seduces an elderly government bureaucrat to extract from him the inspector's plans, the author guides us unerringly into the hearts and fears of the story's characters – on both sides of the political drama.

In the end we resonate with all of Forsyth's characters not necessarily because we approve but because he reveals each's humanity, and once we understand we can't help but care at least a little – a feat of high artistic skill.

I'd avoided reading The Day of the Jackal when it was first published because, although many attempts were made on De Gaulle's life, he died quietly, a private citizen in his own home, in 1970 — seven years after the novel's purported events.

The daring of Forsyth's concept and marvelous conceit that an author could create not only believable but compelling fictional suspense about an assassination that never happened had been lost on me. Instead, it buttressed my naive arrogance – if the book was a hot bestseller, it couldn't be good.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s: I'd begun writing pulp adventure novels and experimenting in them with literary techniques from my short stories. At the same time, I had two young children to support, and words-on-paper isn't a food group. (The literary journals paid in copies, while the pulp fiction paid in checks just large enough I could buy extra copies of the journals.)

That was when a paperback copy of The Day of the Jackal stared at me from the shelf of a thrift store. It had been read so many times the spine was cracked and the pages tattered. Obviously it had riveted readers. I wondered why. I bought it.

As I read, I felt as if I had finally come home. Forsyth's prose was rich and smooth, often lyrical. The characters were memorable. The insider details of the workings of the French government were not only accurate but, under his hand, fascinating. The Jackal's violence was remorseless, as it should have been.

My love of history, culture, geopolitics, and fine writing had finally come together in the pages of this exemplary novel. I was more than grateful; I was inspired. My future in international espionage was sealed. Thank you, Mr. Forsyth.

Thanks so much to Gayle for allowing me to use her blog posting on Rogue Women Writers.

List of some of Gayle Lynds Books:
  • Masquerade
  • The Coil
  • Mosaic
  • Mesmerized
  • The Last Spymaster
  • No Rest For The Dead
  • The Book of Spies
  • The Assassins
  • Covert One books with Robert Ludlum.
    • The Hades Factor
    • The Paris Option
    • The Altman Code

19 September 2016

Unconventional Convention —
Susan Cooper, Unbarred

*hic* You may be wondering why my name is attached to this post instead of Susan’s. See… we went out drinking… Well, not drinking exactly but imbibing slightly. Okay, we were drowning in our cups, flippin’ inebriated. And at the bar Susan says “There’s Brad Pitt,” and I say no, it can’t be, we’re too blitzed to see straight. “It’s Brad Pitt, I tell you. He’s drinking mimosas and flirting with me,” except she pronounced it “mirmoshash.” It’s not, I say staring into my empty glass and then she says “He tastes like Brad Pitt.” I’m not sure what happened or if Suze has a 2-foot Tex Avery tongue, but I grabbed her and we ran before the cops arrived. We raced to SleuthSayers Corporate Headquarters to post her article when she says, “Oh, no. I slipped Brad Pitt the wrong key.” So without her office key, the Crider Building security guard, who was already irritated by Leigh’s stupid article a couple of weeks ago, wouldn’t let Susan in. While she happily napped snored in the lobby, I rattled up the elevator by myself and posted her freakin’ article. So there. *hic*


by Susan Rogers Cooper

In honor of Bouchercon week, I thought I would tell tales from previous conventions. The Statute of Limitations has expired, so any admissions made in this post cannot reflect adversely on those involved. That said, let’s talk about ClueFest.

Many of you may never have heard of this particular convention, mainly because it was very small, held in Dallas, Texas, and only lasted about four years. The mystery fans who started and ran this convention did so with gusto and grace. The tales to be told revolve more around the hotel of choice than the convention itself. It is only apt that I tell these tales now as I plan on traveling to New Orleans with my dear friend Joan Hess (a co-conspirator) and rooming with my other dear friend Jan Grape (at times an instigator).

My first inkling that the location of the convention was not at a Five Star hotel was when I took my shoes off in my room and my feet stuck to the floor. Never a good sign. Then we, my roomie Jan Grape and I, discovered that the hotel bar closed at ten p.m. For a mystery convention? Were they out of their minds? Did they not want to make the big bucks? Had they never heard the rumors about writers? This brought about the great wine opening fiasco. They – the hotel staff – wouldn’t allow us into the closed bar to find a corkscrew, nor would they send someone up to the room with one, due to the fact that there was only one staff member on duty. In the entire hotel. The fact that we also did not have any pillows in our room only intensified the situation. That was the first day. And it was only half a day.

The first full day of the convention the air conditioning in a room that was to be used as a panel/discussion room failed – this convention was held in July, in Dallas, where temps often reach and steady at 100 degrees or more. This caused them, the staff of the hotel, to relocate the panel/discussion to, you guessed it, the lobby. Yes, the lobby. Joan Hess and I, both smokers at the time (this was the ’90s, get over it) had moved to the lobby to smoke as the bar was, again, closed. They, the staff of the hotel, made us leave. Seeing as it was over 100 degrees outside, we, Joan and I, decided to sneak into the bar to smoke. I mean, come on, we could see into the bar and there were ashtrays everywhere! A clear invitation.

The bar was a section of the hotel lobby area bordered by a half wall. Joan, in pants, jumped over. I, in a dress, managed to keep my ladylike demeanor intact by carefully maneuvering my way over the wall. We were halfway to an ashtray when the alarm went off. Let’s just say I wasn’t as ladylike as I lept over the wall to safety. Walking carefully to the front of the hotel, one could clearly hear Joan Hess say, “Is it a fire? Must be. Maybe we should leave.” I could not respond. I was giggling too hard. And I’m not much of a giggler, but then the situation clearly called for nothing less.

It was that evening that we discovered that the hotel next door to ours (with, we assumed, clean floors and an open bar) was hosting a sci-fi convention. Joan, Jan and I looked at each other and, of course, Joan said, “Well, duh. Let’s go.” So we did. On the escalator to the lobby we saw a man dressed in a full “Cats” the musical costume. He was gorgeous.

Once in the lobby area we saw more women than we cared to see dressed in the skimpy Star Fleet women’s uniform, a man with a black wig and pointy ears, three or four red suits (we didn’t stand too close to them -- you know they’re always the first to die), and then the contingent of Star Wars characters: three Princess Lea’s, a couple of Han Solos, and one Chubaca. Which was all quite fascinating and instigated a discussion of why we mystery people didn’t dress up. Of course, for the guys it would be easy: a couple hundred Sherlock Holmeses, a few Hercule Peroits, a Sam Spade or two. But for us, the women, who did we have besides Miss Marple and a few dames in red dresses? We decided to let that idea stay on the back burner. Eventually we found ourselves in the basement level in a room occupied by fantasy gamers (always the basement, the poor guys), with nothing very exciting going on. So we headed back to our dingy, mostly barless hotel.

The one really good thing about those conventions are the stories that can be told. When everything goes right, there are no stories. It’s the mess-ups and derailments that made a con memorable. If I could remember the name of that hotel, believe me I’d post it here. Hell, I’d post it anywhere, although I’m pretty sure it died a natural death years ago.

Looking forward to new adventures in New Orleans, where I’m sure the bar will always be open.

P.S. Whatever Velma might have told you isn't true.

— Susan Rogers Cooper

01 August 2016

The Four Seasons

By Susan Rogers Cooper

Okay, so the title is a misnomer. Since I live in Central Texas, we only have two seasons: summer and winter. Winter is generally mid-December to mid-February. Everything else is summer. We consider our winters to be cold, which, of course, is a relative term. Sixty degrees is cool, fifty-four degrees is cold, and anything lower than that is, excuse the expression, freezing your butt off. I know, I know, those of you who live above the Mason-Dixon line are sneering as you read this. Fine. But before you become too snarky, come spend an August with me, then we'll talk.

The point of this is that this whole two-season thing can reek havoc on the creative process, especially when one is writing about something that happens in January while writing in July. It's sorta cold in January in Austin, which one can easily forget while sweating away in July. Which is why, two hundred and some odd pages into the newest E.J. Pugh mystery, I've had to remind myself that, oops, where are the jackets?

The story takes place at the University of Texas when E.J.'s son, Graham Pugh, comes back to school after the winter break. Yes, that would be January. Then he's accused of the murder of his obnoxious roommate. Just because he'd been thinking about doing it, doesn't mean he actually did it. So of course E.J. has to come to Austin to ferret out the true culprit and free her eldest child. And she should probably bring a coat. Just saying. And just because I'm writing in July when it's quiet plausible to forget about that wet stuff that falls from the sky, doesn't mean it's not available in, excuse the expression, winter. So maybe a raincoat. Okay, just an umbrella. Never rain boots. No one over the age of six does rain boots here. Maybe some ice? We had ice in 2006. It was scary. But I just had an ice storm in my last Milt Kovak book (which was more believable because he lives way up north in Oklahoma).

As I sit here writing this and staring out my window at the relentlessly perky sun, I'm reminded of something my late friend, the writer Nancy Bell, once said to me in a depressed voice: “It's another goddammed beautiful day in Austin.”

So, it's off to the writing mines for me to add the winter stuff: jackets, coats, a nice scarf, a little rain, you know, weather. We don't have weather in the summer months. Just that relentlessly perky sun. I need to go turn the air conditioning down.

18 July 2016

Rediscovered Favorites

By Susan Rogers Cooper

For the past few months my mind has been wandering back to a couple of mysteries I read back in the 80s. They were my second introduction to the mystery genre after I'd read everything John D. MacDonald had ever written. Of course I'd gone through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a child, and Agatha Christie as a teenager, but it wasn't until my early thirties that I got back to the mystery genre. But, alas, those mysteries I'd read after Mr. MacDonald alluded me. I didn't remember the authors' names, the book titles, or even the characters' names. Which began to gnaw at me. But far be it from me to let a little thing like lack of knowledge stop me. I have access to the internet! Voila! And, after several aborted attempts, a lot of swearing, and a couple of phone calls to my eleven year old grandson, I was able to find what I was looking for. And was delighted to find out things about two of my early influences that I never knew.

The first author I found again was Dimitri Gat, author of the Yuri Nevsky series. These were written and were read (by me) before the fall of the Soviet Union, so “white” Russians in America were still the good guys, as opposed to the way they are portrayed these days. There were three Nevsky novels, NEVSKY'S DEMON, NEVSKY'S RETURN, and THE ROMANOV CACHE. I truly loved these books. Great characters and vivid descriptions. I was delighted to see that Mr. Gat is still writing, both under his own name and under pseudonyms. But then I found out something I never saw coming. Like I said earlier, I was a great reader of John D. MacDonald. But in Googling Mr. Gat, I discovered that NEVSY'S DEMON was admittedly a direct “homage” to Mr. MacDonald's THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY. Having read both within probably a year or two of each other, I was shocked I hadn't seen it. But it was such a direct “homage” that the publishing house had to recall the book and Mr. Gat was asked to apologize to Mr. MacDonald, which he did.

The second rediscovered author is Lucille Kallen who passed away in 1999. She was the creator of four C.B. Greenfield mysteries, INTRODUCING C.B. GREENFIELD, THE TANGLEWOOD MURDER (one of my favorite all-time reads), NO LADY IN THE HOUSE, and A LITTLE MADNESS. These were definitely cozier than the Nevsky books, which were rather dark, but an enjoyable read. Personally I can travel between cozy and hard-boiled without suffering any kind of whiplash. But in Googling Ms. Kallen, I discovered something I didn't know: She was the lone woman writer on Sid Ceaser's “Your Show of Shows,” and the prototype for such TV characters as Sally Rogers from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In reading about Ms. Kallen and her books, it has dawned on me that perhaps I never read A LITTLE MADNESS. It appears that Amazon will be hearing from me shortly. But, in reality, I can't remember that much about the other books in the Greenfield series, or, to be honest, in the Nevsky series. So maybe I'll be adding a little to my Amazon cart. Oh, and I really should get another copy of THE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE, just for comparison's sake. But if I do that, I should probably restock my Travis McGee selection. Does anyone know if Amazon does lay-a-way?

I hope that someday, thirty or forty years from now, some other writer will re-discover my work and think as highly of me then as I do of these two now.

14 March 2016

The Character of Characters

By Susan Rogers Cooper

As writers we create characters. We create good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. And I'm not talking about the quality of writing here. I'm talking about the character of a character. Personally, I need someone to root for. Some one I care about. Someone who's outcome means something.

Anybody ever read the book or see the movie of Paddy Chayesky's ALTERED STATES? I admit to only seeing the movie, not reading the book. And if the book was anything like the movie, I doubt I'll ever read it. Why? Because there wasn't a single person in that story I cared about. Weak-kneed, whiny wife and a husband I liked better as the monster than as the man. But that was the 70s and the anti-hero was all the rage.

I don't necessarily want a hero – I just want somebody who's real. A decent person put in an unreasonable situation. Someone who sees a wrong and feels a need to right it. A lot of us write characters whose jobs it is to do these things: police, PI's, lawyers, and others of us write about non-professionals becoming innocently involved in the carnage. I write both. I have one series with a small town sheriff, and one series with an amateur sleuth. The one major problem with writing an amateur sleuth is just how many dead people can she/he find before we begin to suspect a mass murderer? Personally, I always felt Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer.

And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to root for the bad guy. If the bad guy is a full blown person, and not a cartoon cutout of a villain. People kill for a variety of reasons, most of them stupid, but sometimes you can understand that stupidity. I've created bad guys that make you go “ick,” and bad guys that make you go “ah.” But either way they need to be real, and the only flaw should be one of character.

And must the victim be the villain? No. Maybe there was a reason he was killed. Maybe he did do something wrong, something that forced another person to this act of stupidity. But if we can feel for the bad guy, can't we also feel for the dead guy?

Hero, victim, murderer. The holy trinity of what we do. But with all three, above all else, they must be real. And there better be somebody, anybody, to root for.

21 December 2015

An Early Christmas Present

by Susan Rogers Cooper

In my latest Milt Kovak book, COUNTDOWN, I told three stories that were mostly connected.  The first half of the book deals with Milt's wife and all his female employees and wives of his male employees being held hostage at what was supposed to be a surprise wedding shower.  But while this is going on, Milt's son, Johnny Mac (yes, Johnny Mac Kovak -- it rhymes, get over it) and his friends ride their bikes into the woods after a teenager who they believe is going to kill a dog he's dragging in there.

The reason why I'm telling you this:  My grandson who is eleven -- the same age as Johnny Mac in this story -- has always wanted to read one of my books.  I've always thought they were a little too adult (read boring) for an eleven year old boy.  But Johnny Mac's story has him and his friends getting caught in a tornado and having to survive.  My grandson is way into survival stories.  So I thought:  Yay, an early Christmas present!  I took the book and highlighted just the portions dealing with Johnny Mac and his friends and gave it to him to read.  It took a while -- he was reading two other books at the time and, oh, yeah, there was homework, but we won't go into that.

Finally, the day came.  He brought the book back and handed it to me.  I had to ask: "What did you think?"

He shrugged.  "It was pretty good," he said.  "I mean I liked the part with the tornado and all.  But--"

"But?" I queried.

"Yeah, you know.  Where were the zombies?"

Have I failed as a grandmother?  Or, even worse, failed as a writer?  Yes indeed, where were the zombies?  Or at least an alien or two?  What was I thinking?  So for Christmas next year I'll write him his own story full of zombie aliens caught in the snowy wilds of Alaska trying to survive.  Think he'll like it?

07 September 2015

What Makes A Mystery?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

What makes a mystery? The three main characters help: The victim, the protagonist, and the villain.

The victim can be a nice person who didn’t deserve to get murdered, or a vicious schemer that had folks lining up to get a crack at him. What’s important from a plot standpoint is that the victim has lived their life so that they die NOW, at this particular place and time, and while in contact with a particular group of people.

The protagonist, or detective – be they a cop, private investigator, or amateur –
must have a strong interest in solving this crime. A police officer would have a strong professional interest. A PI would have both a personal and a professional interest in solving the crime – the professional because they’ve been hired; and personal because – as the story progresses – they begin to care about avenging the victim or feel a strong personal responsibility to the client. An amateur would probably always be personal – to avenge someone they cared for, or to clear their own name or the name of a loved one. If the protagonist is given a strong motivation to solve the case, this helps move the plot forward because it keeps the protagonist moving forward.

And the whole reason for the story: the murderer. There are all sorts of killers, but in fiction we writers like to stick with the tried and true: a serial killer, a murder for gain (money or love), or someone who thinks they have no other choice. This is my personal favorite and I find it most interesting. The person who commits the crime has been driven to this point by circumstances so horrendous that they thought murder was the only solution to their problem.

What would motivate a person to be murdered? Or to murder? What are the forces that drive a person? Is it money, love, security, or, most likely, a combination of them all? How would this person react if they were involved in a mystery? Would they be an active participant, in either detection or deceit, or would they attempt to extricate themselves from the situation? Is this a violet person or a passive person? What are this person’s interests and what do they tell us about the character? What is their physical appearance and what does that tell us about the character?

Agatha Christie may have thought of the peculiarities of a twisty plot, but to make it work she had to people it w/ characters that could live in that plot. Example: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. I’ve no doubt she thought of the clever twist as to who committed the murder before she thought of the characters on that train, but once she decided on that plot, she had to fill the Orient Express with characters who were capable of living out that plot and making it as believable as possible. Dame Agatha was a brilliant plotter, but she concentrated more on twists designed to shock a reader than she did on twists that emerged from the interactions of characters. Today’s plots are centered more on the interactions of characters rather than dependent on a cleaver means of killing a victim.

In my own books, character has a lot to do w/ the plot. Milt Kovak is a small town sheriff in Oklahoma, in a town he’s lived in all his life. He knows just about everybody in town. In most cases he knows the victim, and eventually, the murderer. The plot usually centers on the murder itself – as in a police procedural – but with lots of detours involving Milt’s many side characters – his staff at the sheriff’s department, his wife and son, his sister, and whatever else seems to be happening in Prophesy County, Oklahoma.

My E.J. Pugh series is more traditional, or cozy if you will. E.J. is an amateur sleuth whose first experience (ONE, TWO, WHAT DID DADDY DO?) is gruesomely personal. Actually, all the books have a personal interest for E.J., and many of them stem from something in my own family's life – not that we've experienced any murders, but, hey, what if?

In a traditional mystery there is usually a strong link in life between the killer and the victim. This immediately advances some of the plot: What were the circumstances that led to the killer’s decision to take a life? Was it an easy decision, a spur of the moment decision, or an idea that went terribly wrong?

In a mystery, the plot is the story. But it must ring true. Sometimes it's hard for an amateur sleuth to continually stumble over dead bodies and make that ring true, but there are other things in that story that should – the amateur's reasons for investigating, their knowledge of the victim, and their feelings about it. The truth is what matters in any story, and there should always be a nugget that our readers can take away.

10 August 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Back in the early 90's, I saw an article in the Austin paper about a family tragedy. The mother committed suicide in her car by carbon monoxide poisoning, but the garage was attached to the house and the door didn't shut properly. Her husband and three children all died. When investigators entered the house, they found a filthy horror – open pizza cartons next to dirty diapers, all three children on a mattress on the floor of a bedroom, sharing space with food and more dirty diapers.
But there was more to this story. In interviewing the mother's co-workers they found a real estate agent who was always dressed to the nines, and had a pristine car in which to take clients to view homes. The teachers at the two older children's school said the children were healthy and well dressed and quite respectful.
Reading this article I had one burning question: What happened to this woman when she stepped over the threshold of her own home? There was no answer in the article. It ended with the sad news that no extended family members ever claimed the bodies, and the only reminder of this family was a plaque on the playground of the school the older children attended.
And I kept asking myself why?

Since there were no answers given, I decided to make up my own, and wrote OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, the third Milt Kovak mystery.

Years ago at a convention I heard two writers belittled the often asked fan question: “Where do your ideas come from?” They thought it was a dumb question. I disagree. I think the origin, the nut, of the idea is fascinating, and have asked the question myself of fellow writers.

In 1998, I went w/ my extended family to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was my daughter and me, along with both my brothers, their wives, and my two nephews. We rented a large house on the water and when we finally got to the island, a real estate lady led us to the house and then took us on a tour, explaining garbage pick up and water delivery (there’s very little water on St. John so it has to be shipped in from one of the larger islands.) In the middle of the living room, the real estate lady lifted up a section of the ceramic tile floor to reveal a cistern – a hole in the middle of the living room floor where the water was stored. Every single member of my family turned and looked at me. Finally, one of them said, “What a great place to hide a body.”

The real estate lady turned a little green and we had to explain my penchant for hiding dead bodies.

But that’s exactly what I did. In DON’T DRINK THE WATER, E.J. Pugh and her husband, her three sisters and their significant others, go to St. John and stay in the exact same house. First day in, the water pressure is way off – no one can take a shower, they go to investigate and voila!

All our ideas come from somewhere and is it any wonder that fans who love our books want to know where that kernel came from? If a writer can't answer that question, maybe the problem is theirs.

Just last week I was talking w/ a friend who had just taken her young daughter to the circus. She said they were standing around before the show, looking at the animals. Three year old Marissa was fascinated w/ the elephants. My friend said it made her nervous because they were so big, and what would happen if one of them got spooked?

And I thought, hum? What would happen? And how could you spook an elephant? A dart gun loaded w/ amphetamines? Then the elephant starts charging everything in site? And why? Because – because – because there’s this witness, see, that you need dead. But it needs to look like an accident, so---

That’s where ideas come from.

30 June 2015

Family Tradition

by Susan Rogers Cooper

This is my first time writing an article for SleuthSayers and I thought I'd start with something a little personal.

I once wrote a short story with the title "Family Tradition," but it wasn't a particularly nice family tradition.  Today I want to talk about a good one -- like three generations of writers.  I started writing when I was about eleven years old, but didn't try to get published until I was in my mid-thirties.  Since that time I've been managed to pump out twenty-something books, several short stories, and been nominated for an Edgar award.  But although we writers like to think we write totally in a vacuum, in my case that's not necessarily true.  When I started my E.J. Pugh series, my late husband Don had already come up with the characters and the first horrific scene (which began a new sub-genre, I was told -- the grizzly cozy), and when I got to a point where I actually needed a plot, Don, my daughter Evin and I sat on our king-sized bed and my teenager gave me the McGuffin.  And also one of the best lines in the book.

Evin started writing as a teenager -- mostly romances  -- but now, in her mid-thirties, she's an accomplished blogger (FOOD GOOD, LAUNDRY BAD) and has been called an "influencial" blogger (she's now driving a Cadillac Escalade as a result of that -- just for a week, but still....)  She's got lots of followers and is heading this year's Austin Blogathon, which is a very big deal.

Today, however, I went to the bookstore and bought my ten year old grandson two chapter books.  He's a voracious reader and I'll do whatever I can to feed that.  When he got to my house to pick them up, he said, "Grandma, I have an idea."  Then went on to tell me of a story he thought of about a boy and his parents on an airplane, the airplane crashes, and the boy is the only survivor.  Or is he?  "I'll write the survival stuff,," he said, "and you put the mystery stuff in, okay?"  And I answered, "You betja."  Now's the time to encourage this, to sew that seed, to get the ball rolling.  Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but what's a grandma to do?

Maybe we'll write this book together, or maybe just start it before something shiny catches our collective short attention span, but the spark is there and I will be the bellows.

06 October 2014

What Are You Reading?

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I didn't think I had done much reading this summer but looking back, I did.

 First, I was on the Shamus Committee to pick the Best Original Paperback. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I always enjoy reading for awards because I quickly learn how important a great first line, first paragraph and first page actually are. I think we sometimes forget those important elements as writers. But I think you absolutely have to grab the reader immediately.

As a book seller for nine years, I quite often watched as customers picked up a book. I believe we all know the book cover and title are extremely important. My friend Bill Crider titled one of his early Sheriff Rhodes books, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT. I can't recall his other titles but I never forgot that one. And I really enjoy Bill's work and that character. Another friend, Susan Rogers Cooper wrote two titles that I remember well, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY and HOUSTON IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR. All three titles are memorable and intriguing. You better believe I'm going to pick-up a book with a title like that and read the back jacket and maybe the first page. And most likely I'll buy that book. The only other title that really intrigued me was on a non-fiction book, HOW TO SHIT IN THE WOODS. That book was in the visitor's center of the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico, where I volunteered three summers. I think it still remains their best seller.

After reading a number of the thirty-five or forty book our committee chose our nominees and our winner (you'll have to wait until the PWA banquet at Bouchercon on Nov 14th to find our who won.)
I did purchase a few books that I really wanted to read. One paperback I bought was CITY OF BONES by Michael Connelly. I  always enjoy Michael's books, especially the Harry Bosch novels and I had read it before but the new TV series featuring Harry Bosch and starring Titus Williver as Harry is the main storyline. It had been quite a while since I read it and I wanted to get back in the "Bosch world" and be ready for the upcoming TV shows. The title is another memorable one and the mystery of the bones of a child found, by a dog, located up in the Hollywood Hills presented a page-turner for sure. To add even more suspense the skeleton had been buried around twenty years earlier.

A hardcover that I bought new, which I seldom do anymore since I live on a fixed income, is Alafair Burke's ALL DAY AND A NIGHT.  I'm sorry to confess that I have not read Alafair before...been intending to, but somehow just hadn't. However, I began to be interested in her as a person on FB. She is bright, witty, beautiful and very likable. I wanted to see if I might possibly like her books. I called my favorite mystery bookstore, Murder By The Book in Houston, as Alafair was going to be there and ordered a signed copy. And I must tell you, I enjoyed the heck out of it. Ellie Hatcher is a homicide detective for the NYPD and is a wonderfully strong and strong-willed female character. Exactly the kind of woman I like to read about. She and her police detective partner work with a female lawyer who believes the man in prison is NOT the serial killer. I love the back and forth between the women and between Ellie and her partner. This book kept me on the edge of my seat.

Next is a book by Les Roberts, titled WET WORK. His editor asked me to read and review if I wanted to do so.  I read it and it's very compelling. The main character, first seen in THE STRANGE DEATH OF FATHER CANDY is a anti-hero, Dominick Candiotti in that he's a paid assassin for the Brownstone Agency.  The agencies leader, a man with the code name "Og" is the boss of a shadowy CIA-type black ops group. They hire assassins to kill traitors, dictators, despots of the world, pedophiles, drug kings, the scum of the earth. Turns out that Dominick is one of the best assassins. He learned his trade in Viet Nam. But he grows weary of the killings, the violence.  Og calls again with a new hurry-up assignment and Dominick says, "no, he's quitting." His boss is NOT happy, trying to make Dominick see that you don't quit the agency ever. Suddenly, he's the mark. Brownstone assassins are after him. Dominick has to use all his skill and cunning and brains to stay one step ahead of the people sent after him. The story takes us from one U.S. city after another as Dominick tries to save himself and try to track down his nemesis  Og. This is one thriller you will not want to put down.

The final book on this short list is one whose title I will always remember, TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS by Russ Hall. If you like reading about Texas and good guys and bad guys, then this is a book for you. It starts off with two brothers, Al and Maury who've not been speaking for twenty years. Maury seems to think and act as if he's God's gift to women and all women want him. And it does seem that they do. Which is the major cause of the brother's feud. Maury managed to get to Al wife and that cause a riff that so far hasn't healed. But right now, Maury is quite ill and someone is trying to kill him. Al, who is a retired deputy of Travis County has his lovely Hill Country lake home,  where he can fish, feed the deer that come around and ignore the world. All good things must come to an end and the Austin Police Detective, Fergie and the nurse who has been taking care of Maury talk Al into letting Maury stay at Al's house. Maury is in such bad shape he has to be sedated.

In the meantime, someone takes pot shots via drive-by boating, hoping to kill Maury or Al, but not succeeding. Then someone takes a match to the lake house. It's saved and now Al is trying to get Maury to explain what has he been into that someone actually wants him dead. Maury isn't inclined to talk. Al finds out that ICE and a Mexican Mafia are both interested in Maury.  To add a little extra tension, Al discovers than all that time spent alone might have been wasted. He finds himself coming alive with Fergie, they've known each other since high school and who knew things might change. However, unless Al can figure out the source of Maury's problems, things are liable to get tough as Hell.

Hope everyone has had a good reading summer. Now it's time more reading and cooler weather.

02 June 2014

Killing Your Darlings

Susan Rogers Cooper
Susan Rogers Cooper
You may have heard the instruction to beginning writers, 'Kill your darlings,' meaning if you like a phrase or passage too much, your readers won't react well to such self-indulgence. Today's famous author gives the words an entirely new meaning.

Susan Rogers Cooper is one-half fifth-generation Texan and half-Yankee, but the Texas side seems to be winning. She is the author of two dozen books: twelve books in the Milt Kovak series, ten in the E.J. Pugh series, and two books in the Kimmey Kruse series. Susan lives in the Austin area and is the grandmother of three precocious children.

And now, as promised…

Killing Your Darlings

by Susan Rogers Cooper

The year was 1983 and my family had just moved to Austin, Texas. I was still buzzing from my first fiction sale – a romance sold to a company called Listen to Love, romance novels on audio-cassette (it went belly-up within a year, although my $100 check did clear).

I saw an ad for story submissions to a prestigious local anthology and reworked a short story I'd already written. The submission criteria was several hundred words less than the story I'd written, so I went about dealing with that. In the story, my angst-ridden main character, going through a mid-life crisis, goes into her attic and finds a box from her teen years, full of Ricky Nelson 45s and other memorabilia of the artist, all based on my own pre-teen fixation with all things Ricky. I tore out the scene – mindlessly and with great aplomb. The story was submitted and bought and I was thrilled. One month later Rick Nelson died in a plane crash.

I'd always heard the expression “killing your darlings,” but I thought it was figurative, not literal. So this is my confession, such as it is. And, by the way, the prestigious local anthology – having been in business for over ten years before my submission – also went belly-up immediately after that year's publication, and I never got the fifty bucks I'd been promised.

In 1987, I decided to write a mystery, which I did, and sent it off to various over-the-transom houses. After the third devastating rejection, I decided on a new mental approach. Instead of “getting published,” my new goal would be to paper the downstairs half-bath with rejection letter wall paper. I only got part of one wall done. Since that time I've had close to thirty books published and, as of this writing, I've not killed anyone else – except on paper – no more publishing venues have gone belly-up on my behalf, and I've been able to tear down the half-finished wall paper in the downstairs bath.

It's the little things that make a career, right?

08 October 2012

Great Sentences

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

When you're reading a book that you really enjoy, do you sometimes find that you STOP and reread a sentence? Maybe it's simplicity caught your eye. Maybe you know that it completely conveys the character, the scene, the motive, that it just rings as true.

I was rereading a book by my friend Susan Rogers Cooper last week. The book is A Crooked Little House," published in 1999. Now, I've read Susan for years, actually since 1990 when we had our mystery bookstore and she came out for our Grand Opening. I had not met her before but we had a hard copy of her second book Houston In The Rearview Mirror. I asked her to sign it and from that point on Susan and I became friends. I read everything she wrote usually before it even came out. I tell you all this to let you know that just because I know and love her like a sister, it has no bearing on the sentences in CLH that grabbed, and gave me the idea for this article. It's actually three short paragraphs, but it conveys the geographic location so vividly.

"I love a good storm. I always have. It energizes me--the drama of it, the excitement of it. Rain without lightening and thunder is just wet, but put the three together, and you have a night's entertainment a hell of a lot more stimulating than dinner and a movie. And sex during a storm is nothing to sneeze at--in case you weren't aware of this.
Since we'd moved to central Texas, there was a certain sadness for me about storms. In Houston, where I was born and raised and where I gave birth to my children, you can expect rain just about anytime. Droughts in Houston are such a rarity as to be laughable.
Not in central Texas. Each storm of spring could be the last one until fall;enjoy the one coming because you may forget what it's like before the next storm."

It's words like that which make me want to be a writer. To be able in a few words to convey a feeling of storms, of living where there are few storms. To feel the heat on your skin and body for weeks and months and the longing for a good rain. Many writers can do this and I admire each and every one of them.

David Baldacci's latest paperback, Zero Day gives a description of a woman that is excellent in my opinion.

"Samantha Cole was not in uniform. She was dressed in faded jeans, white T-shirt, a WVU Mountaineers windbreaker, and worn-down calf-high boots. The butt of a King Cobra double-action .45 revolver poked from inside her shoulder holster. It was on the left side, meaning she was right-handed. She was a sliver under five-three without boots, and a wiry one-ten with dirty blonde hair that was long enough to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and wide; the balls of her cheekbones were prominent enough to suggest Native American ancestry. Her face had a scattering of light freckles.
She was an attractive woman but with a hard,cynical look of someone to whom life had not been overly kind."

Wow. Short but so powerful. You know you'd know Samantha if you met her anywhere. There's no reason to describe someone with sentences and paragraphs and words and words. Just find the important little details that can make a character a real person to the reader.

One more example and it's a song lyric, which might sound strange but it's just one that really grabbed me. The song is "Utopia" written by John Greenberg & Bill Murry and is sung by singer/song writer, john Arthur martinez. jAm came in 2nd on the TV show Nashville Star, a few years ago and is a friend and neighbor of mine.

"For 15 battered years we lived out of a pick-up truck. When she told me to make my bed I'd just put the tail-gate up."

Okay, maybe it's just me, but those twenty-five simple words convey so much. I know each of you have favorite sentences and paragraphs that move you or excite you or inspire you. I've shown you some of mine and now you can show me some of yours.