Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

19 September 2023

Bouchercon takeaways: being a successful panelist


Like some of you reading this, I recently attended this year's Bouchercon, which is touted as the world's largest mystery convention. It's held in a different city each year. This year, approximately 1,700 crime/mystery readers and writers converged in San Diego, where--among other things--we participated in and attended panels devoted to crime fiction. 

I like panels. I like learning new things and finding new-to-me authors whose books I'm excited to read. I probably attend more panels on average than many other people do at conventions like this. Some people actually leave the convention hotel to tour the city! Me, wherever we go, I attend the panels. This is partly a byproduct of having been the program chair of Malice Domestic from 2008 - 2014. If you live and breathe panels for as long as I did, you get attached and you like going to ones that sound good. Of course, I became program chair because I loved going to panels and thought I could do a good job at creating and scheduling them, so I guess this is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. But I digress.

Bouchercon started on Wednesday afternoon this year instead of the usual Thursday morning. The extra half day of panels really made a difference. It made the convention seemed less rushed. It enabled more authors to be on panels. It gave attendees more chance to see panels on topics they were especially interested in because there often was more than one panel on a similar topic. For instance, this year they had several panels devoted to short stories, to which I say: two thumbs up.

This is all a lead-up to say that I attended a lot of panels at Bouchercon, and I noted some problems occurring in panel after panel after panel. The biggest one: too many panelists far too often do not speak into the microphone. That makes it difficult for people in the audience to hear you or hear you clearly. So, for future reference, here are my handy dandy tips for being a successful panelist:

  • Speak into the microphone. Either move the microphone so it is CLOSE to your lips or EVERY TIME you speak lean forward so it's close to your lips. If the mic is sitting in the middle of the table and you're sitting with good posture, chances are your mic is a foot away. That's too far. It will not pick up what you're saying well. Pretend the mic is your high school crush. Get up close and personal. A couple of inches between mouth and mic is about right.

  • Speak to the audience. Look to the front. When you do that, you have a much better chance of speaking into the microphone. I can't tell you how many times panelists turned their head, talking to their panel moderator or fellow panelists when answering a question. When they did that, their lips were not near their mic. I understand the inclination to want to look at the person you're responding to, but this is not a conversation between two friends. Think of the moderator as a stand-in for the audience. Look at the moderator if you like when the question is posed, but then look to the audience when you answer. They're the ones who chose this panel to hear what you have to say. Make it easy for them.
  • Image by rawpixel.com
  • If you're considering standing your book up on the table during the panel so audience members can see it, make sure it is not a hindrance to the audience seeing your face. If a book is a short mass market paperback, it probably won't block you. If it's a hardback, it very well might. And if you set your book on a little holder, the chances are even greater you'll be blocked by your book. So, before the panel starts, set your book up and have a friend sit in various spots in the audience and let you know if you're visible. If your book is blocking you from any spots in the audience, then I would hold it up while you are being introduced and then set it down. You might think you don't care if the audience can see you, that you want your book to be seen. But as an audience member, I beg to differ. It can be hard to connect with an author if I'm annoyed that I can't see them, no matter what they say or how charming they are. Think of the audience as your annoying relative who brushed your hair from your eyes when you were a kid. Bubby, we want to see your face.
  • When an audience member asks a question, repeat it before answering it. This is a moderator responsibility, but sometimes questions are posed directly to a particular panelist, and the panelist will jump in to answer. If you do, try to remember to restate the question first (speaking into the mic) so everyone in the audience can hear it. I know it can be easy to forget to do this. I'm guilty of it myself. All we can do is try our best to remember.
  • The best panels I attend often have conversations between the panelists. Rather than having a question posed and each panelist answer it down the line, saying their piece and waiting quietly until the next question is posed, see if you have something to add to what other panelists say. Engage in conversation.You'll probably end up with more interesting and less canned answers. (But don't talk too much. If you are talking twice as long or twice as often as anyone else, it will be noticed by the audience members and not in a good way.)
    Thanks to photographer
    John Thomas Bychowski.

I hope to see (and hear) you at Bouchercon next fall in Nashville (and Malice Domestic next spring in North Bethesda, Maryland, as usual). 

And before I go, a little BSP: I was delighted to win the Anthony Award for Best Short Story of 2022 at Bouchercon for "Beauty and the Beyotch," originally published in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Thanks to the magazine's editor, Carla Coupe, who helped make the story better.

08 August 2023

More great books I've read


Earlier this year, I talked about three books I'd read and enjoyed. Here are three more I highly recommend.

A Novel Disguise by Samantha Larsen 

This book set in the late 1700s in a small English town has a premise that might sound ludicrous. Tiffany, an unmarried woman, lives with her half-brother, keeping his home. He is an unlikeable person, to say the least, but she has little choice in the matter, being (as I mentioned) single and a woman. Then he dies at home. Fearing she is about to be cast out of her home, and knowing she and her brother look a lot alike, she secretly buries him, then dons a disguise, and pretends to be him, going to his work every day. (He's a librarian at the manor home in town.) The premise sounds unbelievable, like farce, but damn if the author didn't pull it off.

The murder mystery (because of course there's a murder (maybe more than one)) has a lot of fun twists that made me laugh aloud and propelled me to keep turning the pages. The characters were interesting with good voices. The book has a solid ending. I did see the solution coming, but I don't think everyone will. And I didn't mind having guessed correctly. (Oh, and if you're thinking Tiffany is a modern name, an anachronism, it's actually not. It was a popular name at the time.)

The author addresses important social issues--sexism, classism, and racism--without coming off as preachy. And if you like a little romance in your crime stories, this one has a budding one. The book, which came out in May of this year, is the author's first crime novel (she's previously written romance under another name), and I'm delighted it won't be her last. It's book one in the Lady Librarian series published by Crooked Lane. May there be many more.

Buried in a Good Book by Tamara Berry

Divorced mom Tess and her fourteen-year-old daughter Gertie move to Tess's late grandfather's cabin in the woods of a small Washington (state) town for the summer. They haven't even moved in when when, you guessed it, they discover a dead body. But they don't  just come across it. Nope. This body falls from the sky in the first of many humorous situations. While Tess is worried about how this murder mystery will impact Gertie (who is thrilled to land an internship at the morgue), Tess isn't exactly unhappy about getting up close and personal with this mystery herself. You see, she's a successful thriller author, and she loves using things from her real life (be it research she conducts or bodies that fall from the sky) in her books. Less thrilled is the town police chief, who strongly resembles Tess's series hero, Detective Gonzalez, and who wishes she would keep her nose out of his business--and stop comparing him to Detective Gonzalez.

We encounter a lot of cozy-mystery tropes in this book, but that's okay because the author's voice is delightful and witty. She made me laugh aloud. The mystery is well plotted and interesting, even if it is over the top. Heck, it's because it's over the top that it works so well. The book came out last year from Poisoned Pen Press, and this spring it won the inaugural Lilian Jackson Braun Memorial Prize. It's book one in the By the Book Mysteries series.

Books two and three have come out already, but, sigh, the publisher will not be continuing the series beyond there. I know some of you may not want to pick this book up because there are only three books in the series, but I'd reconsider. Don't deprive yourself of the happiness reading this book will bring you. It's plain old fun.

Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

Imagine a secret college where you can go to learn not only to kill the person you hate (if they deserve it) but how to get away with it--or die trying. Set in 1950, the dean of this college (in an undisclosed location, of course) has penned a book about his school and three of its students, and the book you're reading is the book the dean has written. (Meta? Oh, yes.)

This book is incredibly witty and clever. It has a strong plot with interesting details baked in, complex characters, and a setting readers who love college towns will wish they could see. The book's concept is so good, I wish I'd thought of it. Overall, it's a delightful read. 

The book came out in February of this year from Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, and of all the books I've read this year that have been published this year, it's my favorite. If you like audio books, then definitely listen, because the readers (Simon Vance and Neil Patrick Harris) are great. Oh, and if you're thinking, Rupert Holmes, Rupert Holmes, where do I know this author from? Well, he's written a lot before--he's even won the Edgar Award--but you might have recognized his name from "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." Is that song now in your head? You're welcome. (Hey, I'm not going to feel bad. I like that song.)

27 June 2023

Writing an American Novel


Dutch author Anne van Doorn has previously written for SleuthSayers. Today, in the wake of the Dutch publication of the novel he's deemed his "American Project," I'm delighted to welcome him back so he can tell you about this project and possibly provide a blueprint for those who'd like to attempt something similar.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – The Procedure

by Anne van Doorn


In two previous articles on SleuthSayers, I talked about my intention to write an American mystery novel set in New York City. Since my last post, I’ve done exactly that. Some of you may have heard of The Delft Blue Mystery, the Dutch translation of which was released at the end of May. The first copy was presented to Josh Pachter, to whom I dedicated the book. Since I’m still looking for a literary agent—and subsequently a publisher—the English version has yet to come out.

I dedicated the novel to Josh for various reasons. Basically, The Delft Blue Mystery would never have been written if he hadn’t encouraged me.

Josh contacted me in the summer of 2017 and said he’d heard I had written a short story that could be of interest to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This initial contact led to the publication of “The Poet Who Locked Himself In” in the September/October 2019 issue of EQMM. Through our correspondence, I have come to know Josh as a true professional. He knows a lot about getting short fiction published in magazines. He told me that my English is probably good enough to translate my stories myself and get them published. He also gave me sound advice to achieve that goal. With that encouragement, I succeeded. EQMM published “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” last year. Once I made that sale, I wanted to try my hand at a novel too—and why not write it in English from scratch?

This article is not intended to BSP my novel or my published short stories, but to highlight the procedure I used, which may be relevant to other non-American speakers considering writing an American (mystery) novel. My method could be a blueprint, or at least inspire others on how to go about it.

First two stages

I’m a plotter, and I write plot-driven novels. On my computer, I have a file titled “What to do” that guides me step-by-step through creating a plot and plot structure (stage 1), writing the story (stage 2), and editing it (stage 3). In this post, I will not go into detail about the creation of the plot, but I would like to show you where the procedure for The Delft Blue Mystery differs from what I normally do when I write in my own language—Dutch.

Concerning stage 1, the normal routine didn’t change much, but I read many books by American authors and wrote down words I needed to express my story. I know many English words, but in specific situations, my knowledge falls short. For example, what jargon does a Medical Examiner use? What does slang look like on the page? In my first post on SleuthSayers, I talked about creating a palette file. I used it during the first stage to determine how each character expresses themselves non-verbally.

Stage 2 was easy: write the book! As a plotter, I work with a detailed outline that shows how many scenes there will be, where each scene takes place, which characters are involved, and how the plot should develop. This detailed outline was vetted by a fellow Dutch author, Paul Dieudonn√©—my soundboard for this novel. I used his feedback to improve the outline.

Writing according to an outline is a routine matter. What differs from the usual procedure is that I utilized my palette file, which helped me decide which words to use. Does a character walk, stride, tiptoe, or move in another way? How does he put something down—gently or slamming it down? What forms of non-verbal communication might I use? The palette file turned out to be a very useful tool.

Third stage – The editing, part I

Most of the additional steps can be found in the third stage. After writing the first draft, I took several steps to improve the manuscript. Most of them I apply to each book: I analyzed and improved plot structure, characterization, and setting. But now on to the additions to my step-by-step guide.

Since I was taught British English at school, I created a file explaining the differences. I used it to weed out British spelling and words with (slightly) different meanings. As I write about the New York City Police Department (NYPD), I have a file of information on how the NYPD operates, and I’ve used it to enhance the story. I collected English words I didn’t know and wrote down their meanings, an example sentence, and synonyms in a file, and then consulted that file to change words in my manuscript where and when needed.

As a daily visitor to SleuthSayers, I have saved some articles on my computer. Leigh Lundin wrote an excellent piece on deadwords. I used the post to weed out overused words. John M. Floyd drew our attention to a similar topic: redundancies. He also wrote the article “Where's A Grammar Cop When You Need One?” Another valuable weed killer!

I know myself. I know I tend to repeat mistakes. Barb Goffman edited “The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin” and two other short stories I translated from Dutch. I collected the kind of errors I might repeat in a file titled “Edits by Barb Goffman.” I went over all my notes in that document to find similar mistakes I made in The Delft Blue Mystery. By the way, Josh Pachter introduced me to Barb, so he facilitated Barb’s involvement too!

Third stage – The editing, part II

Once I was confident I had done all I could, I would normally have sent the manuscript to my publisher. But not now. I added several steps to the procedure.

Josh Pachter told me one day that he uses Google Translate to translate stories from Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, into English. A splendid idea. I used the tool to translate my English manuscript into Dutch. It only took an hour or so. That translation wasn’t too bad. Eighty percent of the sentences turned out to be fine. But I had to edit the other twenty. And the punctuation was off. I created a file with common Google Translate errors for future use. That will make it easier next time.

I finished the Dutch version and sent it to publisher Hans van den Boom. Based on his feedback, I made some changes to the plot of both versions. Then I ran the Dutch text through Google Translate, from Dutch into English, and I used that new version to improve my own English draft. Most of the changes concerned word choice and the sequence of words. Then I ran that improved English text through the free version of Grammarly. That tool helped me improve punctuation—especially comma use—and change wordy sentences.

Third stage – The editing, part III

I’m not an American, and I have never worked for any of the police departments in the USA. While I’ve carefully researched the NYPD (for example, their radio communication procedures; I have two files about this subject on my computer), I can make mistakes. I take certain liberties to create a readable and suspenseful story, but it shouldn’t deviate too far from reality. Therefore, I needed a beta reader who is—or had been—a policeman.

Tom Mead

As far as I can remember, it was (again) Josh Pachter who introduced me to David Dean, a retired police chief, who served with a police department in New Jersey. He’s also a very accomplished short-story writer. I was much impressed by his “The Duelist,” and consider it one of the three best stories I’ve read in EQMM since I subscribed in 2019. I think he’s a far better author than I am.

When I approached him, David was most kind. He was keen on reading my manuscript (which still hadn’t been professionally edited), which he then did, giving me useful feedback. I made a couple of necessary changes to both versions.

British author Tom Mead, writer of Death and the Conjuror—a mystery novel I thoroughly enjoyed—was my second beta reader. I write whodunits and sometimes dabble in locked-room mysteries, which The Delft Blue Mystery is. I needed a beta reader to assess that aspect of my manuscript: the fine-tuning of the plot, the clues, the red herrings, and the final revelation. Tom gave me some ideas to improve the plot.

Third stage – The editing, part IV

At last, I had the story ready for my editor, the aforementioned Barb Goffman. Does she need an introduction? Not only is Barb a professional developmental, copy, and line editor, but she’s also an award-winning short fiction author. She won so many awards and received so many nominations, I should probably go back to school and learn how to count again. What can I say about what she did with The Delft Blue Mystery? Well, a lot had to be done! So much so, that I’m still amazed that David Dean and Tom Mead were willing to read an early, unedited version. It can’t have been easy for them.

Naturally, I’ve updated my “Edits by Barb Goffman” file for future use.

Josh Pachter

Do you think the manuscript was finished now? Almost. Barb’s edits also impacted the Dutch version. Hans van den Boom and his wife, Erna Teunissen, did a final round of corrections of Het Delfts blauw mysterie, as the novel is titled in Dutch. Some of their corrections necessitated changes to the English version as well.

Thus The Delft Blue Mystery is completed (for now). Much of this was made possible by Josh Pachter. Hence my decision to dedicate the novel to him—to express my gratitude and admiration for what he did. The first copy of the Dutch version was handed to Josh by his wife, Laurie Stahl Pachter, whom I had asked for assistance. The photos she took of the memorable event commemorate this high point in my career. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him and with so many other talented people.

Thank you all!

06 June 2023

Your Story Idea Here


I was driving over the weekend and saw a billboard that prompted me to widen my eyes and think, what the ______ (fill in the blank as you deem fit; my word started with F). The billboard was so startling that I immediately thought: there's a story there. Not only what must have happened in real life to prompt that billboard but a fictional story I can create inspired by the billboard and/or using a billboard just like that. It's a great jumping-off point.

What did the billboard say, you're wondering. Sorry. Not telling. I hope to make use of it. But it suggested the idea for this blog. Billboards as story prompts. So I went looking and found some billboards that I hope might inspire you. 


This has crime story written all over it.

Prompt for a Thriller?

I'm not even sure how to use this one.
What do you think?

 

Have you ever written a story inspired by a billboard? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. And what do you think of these three? I hope you can use one or more of them in your writing.

16 May 2023

Caution: Writer at Work


When you're pulled in too many directions at once, it's nice to have a friend who is willing to pinch hit for you. So today, instead of offering my own (cough cough) words of wisdom, I'm delighted to share a behind-the-scenes look at writing from my friend Donna Andrews, author of the New York Times-bestselling Meg Langslow mystery series. Take it away, Donna! 

 Caution: Writer at Work

by Donna Andrews

I will start the first draft of my next book on Thursday, June 1. Note that I’m not saying “I plan to start” or “I hope to start.” I will be starting it then, because that’s when I need to start to finish it, revise it, and turn it in on time.

And I’ve got my spreadsheet ready.

Yes, I consider my trusty spreadsheet an essential writing tool. I start with my actual deadline, the date I have to deliver the manuscript to my editor, and then set my own deadline for finishing the first draft--optimally four to six weeks before the real deadline. Then I construct a schedule that lets me work at a comfortable pace, writing on weekdays and taking the weekends off to recharge--or catch up. I tinker with the spreadsheet--building in breaks for times when I hope not to be writing--trips to Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, for example. And then--voila! I know what day I need to start my draft.

It helps if I do this process far enough ahead that I don’t finish the spreadsheet and then realize that I should have started five weeks ago.

Don't be fooled. That's not Donna.
She'd never write without Diet
Coke by her side.

Once I start writing . . . (June 1) . . . the spreadsheet helps keep me sane. When I sit down at my computer every day, I don’t have to think about how much I’ve written and how much I still have to write and whether any of it’s any good. I just have to write that day’s quota. As long as I write however many words I’ve assigned myself for the day, I’m allowed to celebrate.

And for this next book, the magic day is June 1. Sorry if I keep repeating that, but as my start date creeps closer, reminding myself helps me focus on everything I need to do before then. Because I’m a planner--or plotter, if you prefer. If I’m on my game, by June 1 I will know how the book starts. I will know who done it, and who got done, and how, and why. I will know who else had a motive, and how Meg, my heroine, unmasks the real killer, and what happens in the dramatic final scene. I’m already over the first hurdle--finding a bird-themed punning title that my editor likes. Now I’m doing my research, scoping out the cast of characters, working out the plot.

If it sounds as if I know what I’m doing . . .yeah, I do. Sort of. After all, I’ve done this before--38 times before. That doesn’t mean I’m all relaxed and “whatever” about it. It doesn’t ever get easy. (Apologies to newer writers, but it really doesn’t.) Some parts of it get easier. But there's still the challenge of trying to write a book that's better than the last. Not to mention that with every single book, at some point I reach what I now call the “it’s all crap” phase. Knowing this happens every time doesn’t make it feel any better. So what do I do when that awful feeling creeps over me?

I write the day’s quota. It doesn’t necessarily get rid of the “it’s all crap” feeling. But it gets me one day closer to finishing. I remind myself that if I keep going, the feeling will eventually vanish. And that you can edit crap, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Ahhhhh! A blank page!
And what do I do when I sit down at the computer feeling singularly uninspired? Same thing. I do my quota. Inspiration is overrated. I don’t write because I’m inspired; with luck, along the way, I’ll get inspired. But if I don’t--at least I’ve done my quota.

I take comfort in Lawrence Block’s example. In one of his books--don’t ask me which, because I like his take on writing and have several of them--he recounts how, when he began writing full time, he made himself write every day. Some days he couldn’t wait to get to the keyboard, and other days he wanted to do anything else. He wrote anyway, figuring if it was really bad, he could always throw it out. But over time he found that he rarely had to. Sure, what he wrote when he wasn’t inspired needed revision and editing. So did what he wrote on the good days. He’d learned to write at a certain level--a professional level.

Really wish I could find the essay in which he said this. Some days it would help, reading it before I put my fingers on the keys and write anyway.

I was able to find another favorite quote on writing, from Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time:

I haven’t mentioned the Muse, the mythic word for “inspiration.” She is the last person you want to depend on. Professional writers generally speak of her with a mixture of affection and tolerance. Discipline, not the Muse, results in productivity. If you write only when she beckons, your writing is not yours at all. If you write according to your own schedule, she’ll shun you at first, but eventually she won’t be able to stay away from your workshop. If you deny her urgings, she will adopt your discipline. Nothing attracts her more than a writer at work on a steady schedule. She’ll come around. In other words, you become your own Muse, just as you make the clock of life your clock.

Useful book, A Writer’s Time. Along with Block’s books on writing, like Spider, Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I sometimes reread parts of them when I need encouragement. And then I write my quota.

If this sounds boring . . . I prefer to think of it as a comforting routine. Starting June 1, every day--well, every weekday--I'll get up, stumble downstairs to my computer, open my spreadsheet, open my manuscript . . . and do my quota.

And now back to all those things I need to do before June 1. Is my villain’s motive believable? Do I have enough red herrings? Too many? Wait, have I created a perfect crime, one that will be impossible for Meg to solve? Or is the twist too obvious? What if--

You know, I’m actually looking forward to June 1.

---

Barb again, thanking Donna for finding time in her well-planned schedule to show you how she sets--and keeps--her schedule.

And now for a little BSP, I'm thrilled to share that at the end of April I won the Agatha Award for my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch," which appeared in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. And last week, this story was named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award, to be awarded in September at Bouchercon. If you're interested, I have it up on my website for your reading pleasure. Just click here.

25 April 2023

It's Malice time!


I like to think of myself an an organized person, but sometimes life just kicks my butt. Normally I would write this post tomorrow (Monday) so it can appear at 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, but I forgot--until a minute ago--that they are doing internet upgrades in my neighborhood tomorrow and I'll be without service for a good chunk of the day (and that's if they keep their word to finish on time). So I need to write this now, but I don't have time to write a full-fledged column now so ... I'm taking the easy way out.

The Malice Domestic convention starts on Friday. Malice, as it's affectionately known, is a fan convention that celebrates the traditionally mystery, though the authors and fans who attend typically read across the crime-fiction spectrum. I am honored to be this year's toastmaster. Our other honorees this year are: Hank Phillippi Ryan, guest of honor; Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee, international guests of honor; Ann Cleeves, lifetime achievement honoree; Tanya Spratt-Williams, fan guest of honor; Luci Zahray (better known as the Poison Lady), Amelia honoree; and Elizabeth Peters, our Malice Remembers honoree.

I'm also honored to have a short story nominated for this year's Agatha Award. My fellow finalists are Cynthia Kuhn, Lisa Q. Matthews, Richie Narvaez, and Art Taylor. You can access the five nominated stories through Malice Domestic's website. Just click here and scroll down to the names of the short stories. Each one is a link. Happy reading!

If you're going to Malice, yay! I'm looking forward to seeing you.

And I'll see you all here in three weeks.

04 April 2023

Three More Great Books


In early January, I shared three books I'd recently read and loved. Now I'm back with three more books I've read since then. I highly recommend them all.

Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano 

The main character is a crime writer single mom who's overheard in a coffee shop talking with her agent about her novel-in-progress. The woman who overhears her misunderstands all the talk about murder and thinks Finlay is a hitwoman. She tries to hire Finlay to murder her husband. Finlay has no desire to commit murder, but she does need money ...

This 2021 novel is well crafted with great characters, voice, and humor. It's surprising and refreshing. One twist after another. It also has a great first line: "It's a widely known fact that most moms are ready to kill someone by eight thirty A.M. on any given morning." (I would have deleted the A.M., but that's a copy-editing quibble.) 

This is the first book in a so-far three-book series. If you like audio books, the reader, Angela Dawe, is marvelous.

A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones

Single mom Sunshine Vicram has just moved to her hometown in New Mexico with her teenage daughter, Auri, and she's starting her new job as sheriff. On her first day at work, a teenager goes missing--the one friend her daughter had in town. And the story is off and running.

The story is told from Sunshine's and Auri's perspectives, and while it deals with heavy issues, the book has a lot of humor built in. The town is full of quirky characters and some dark ones too. The book has a great voice and likeable characters, and the writing is heartfelt at times too. This novel came out in 2020, and there have been two more in the series since then. 

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

I'll start by saying this isn't a crime novel; it's fantasy (though there is crime in it). Those of you who know me know I mostly read crime, so I figure it's a good idea to point that out at the start. This story stars seventeen-year-old Charlie, who becomes a caretaker to an ailing older neighbor and the man's elderly dog, Radar. Charlie eventually learns that a locked shed in the man's backyard hides a spiral stairway (shown on the cover) that leads to another world--a magical world--beneath the earth. In that world, known as Empis, evil forces have taken control. When Charlie takes Radar to the other world to try to save the dog's life, he finds himself on a hero's journey to save not only Radar but all the people of Empis--and ultimately himself. Charlie ends up living a fairy tale.

I haven't read a lot by King. I saw too many TV commercials about his books in the '80s that looked way too scary for me. But the few of his books (his non-horror books) I've read have been up my alley. And this book (published last year) is magnificent. I was quite surprised to read recently that King doesn't plot his books in advance, because this book is really well plotted with story and word-choice details built in from the very beginning that pay off as the book proceeds. (He must be a hell of a reviser.) The book has amazing world building and a whole lot of other great stuff: characters, story, suspense, and writing. It's long (more than 600 pages long; the audio book goes for 24 hours), but I didn't mind because I loved it--the story, the kid, and (surprise surprise), the dog. If you check it out, I hope you'll feel the same.

Happy reading!

And if you're looking for something to read other than these three great books, I hope you'll check out my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch," which is a current finalist for the Agatha Award. It's available on my website. You can read it by clicking here

21 March 2023

First we had Malice in Dallas. Now, things are Reckless in Texas


Earlier this month, Reckless in Texasthe second book in the Metroplex Mysteries anthology serieswas published. It follows last year's Malice in Dallas. If you think these titles are fun, wait until you read the books. (Joseph S. Walker's story in Malice has been chosen to appear in The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2023. But you don't have to wait for that anthology to come out this autumn to read Joe's story. Malice in Dallas is available now. Just click here.)

But back to Reckless in Texas. It has ten stories plus a foreword written by my fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd. I've had the pleasure of editing both anthologies for the North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I wanted to tell you a bit about the Reckless stories. But rather than talk about them myself, I decided to put the anthology's ten authors on the hot seat. I asked them to (1) talk a little about their stories, (2) share their favorite thing about their stories, and (3) tell where in the Dallas/Fort Worth area their stories are set and why. And here we go:

The book opens with "Monster" by Shannon Taft

Elizabeth believes that her mother-in-law, Alberta, did not have an enemy in the world the night she was stabbed to death. But if that is true, then who killed Alberta—and what do they want now?

My favorite thing about this story is that the victim appears to be a wonderful person. In many mysteries, the victim is universally loathed with masses of people who want them dead. The lack of apparent motive makes for a different sort of challenge.

I chose Highland Park because I needed a place where wealthy characters might live and it offered me loads of landmarks to work with, including Teddy Bear Park, Turtle Creek, and the Dallas Country Club. 

The next story is "The Prime Witness to the Murder of Dr. Malachi Samson" by Derek Wheeless

He would be murdered by one of the four women he trusted most in all of Dallas. He would be killed in the most fabulous mystery library in all of Texas, surrounded by the most magnificent first-edition tomes in all the world. And best of all, Dr. Malachi Sampson, the leader of the Women of the Arcane Mystery Book Club, would approve of his murder.

My favorite part of the story is the library. I would LOVE to have a library like the one in which Dr. Malachi Sampson is killed. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind dying in a library like that either!
The story is set on Swiss Avenue, a very historic street just east of downtown Dallas with very grand and stately homes that came about during the first several decades of the 1900s. One day, as I drove along the two and half miles of Swiss Avenue admiring the Mediterranean, Spanish, Georgian, Craftsman, and other styles of architecture, I wondered what it might be like if one of these old grand dames had the most spectacular mystery libraries inside. I also wanted to try writing a story in reverse, where the ending came first and the beginning came last. I’d seen an old Seinfeld episode like that and wondered if I could pull off a short mystery with the same approach, yet leaving some twist for the reader to enjoy in the final paragraphs. So I put the two ideas together and thus was born “The Prime Witness to the Murder of Dr. Malachi Sampson.”
 
Next up is "Traction" by Terry Shepherd
 
When a police detective ends up in traction after pushing a perp out of harm’s way, she discovers a mystery with tendrils connecting two of the city’s most prominent families. It’s a web of deception and murder she has to untangle from her hospital bed with only her wits and the spider who keeps her company.
I love puzzles where the only tool we have to solve them rests in our brain. Constructing a scenario where someone with a sharp mind who's sidelined by a broken leg solves a crime was great fun.
This Dallas tale is unique as it never leaves the protagonist’s hospital room. We meet people who do things in different parts of town, but the adventure begins and ends in the same spot.
 
Our fourth story is "The Laundry Larceny" by ML Condike  
 
A retired SMU professor who recently moved Sign Point, a life-plan community, is drawn into a murder investigation when the community's manager is found dead in a laundry room in Memory Care. How will Maggie solve the mystery when the only witness thinks he's Xerxes the Great, a king of the Achaemenid Empire?

My favorite thing about my story is that it shows the camaraderie and friendships formed in an age-in-place senior-living facility. I also love the way Maggie, my protagonist, reconciles the fact that Xerxes may not be the person he used to be, but he's happy with his new life.
 
I chose to set my fictional Sign Point on Preston Road in Dallas because the proximity to Southern Methodist University makes the relationships in the story more believable. 
 
Up next is "Who Shot the Party Crasher?" by Amber Royer
 
When ex-rock star Manda takes a road trip home to Texas with her aunt and her aunt's besties to see where the TV show Dallas was shot, she gets more than she bargained for when they find a dead body in their RV. Can she figure out who shot the guy who kinda looks like J.R.?
 
I love how this story echoes themes from my long-form work. Television and media and our relationship to them are a big part of the Chocoverse space-opera series in which my protagonist's mom is an intergalactic celebrity chef and my protagonist is hiding out from the paparazzi—while basically living inside a telenovela on the page. And Felicity, the protagonist of my Bean to Bar Mysteries, has an ambivalent relationship with her shop's image (after it becomes the site of a murder, in the first book) and social media (especially after a killer learns of Felicity's crime-solving exploits via a podcast and calls her out in book five).
 
This story is set in the north part of Dallas/Fort Worth. I've lived up this way for around six years, and it's an interesting mix of quaint city squares, urban areas, wildlife-friendly parks (we saw a beaver the last time we went walking at night on the path around Towne Lake!) and landmarks—including Southfork Ranch, the house used for the television show Dallas. I didn't want to set a murder at the actual landmark, so I used it just for inspiration.  
 
Our sixth story is "Stood Up" by Dänna Wilberg
 
Who killed Lanky Dave? After being stood up for a date by a local actress, a Dallas detective agrees to sacrifice his night off to investigate a drug dealer's gruesome murder. During his investigation, he discovers fate can be cruel, blood is thicker than water, and things aren't always as they appear to be. 
 
My favorite part of writing "Stood Up" was creating unusual characters, incorporating local history into the backstory, and weaving many interesting locations, spanning from Frisco to downtown Dallas, into the plot.
 
Although I'm from Sacramento, California, I was fortunate to attend a speakeasy in Frisco and dine at Campisi's legendary restaurant. But truth be told, I fell in love with Dallas's potential for staging a murder after taking a city tour on a souped-up golf cart.  
 
Next comes "Steer Clear" by Mark Thielman
 
The sudden disappearance of Bluebonnet, Forth Worth's prize steer, has the mayor demanding answers. To avoid the wrath of his lieutenant, Detective Alpert must shake off his hangover long enough to find Cowtown's favorite bovine. "Steer Clear" is a locked-barn mystery. 
 
I'm combining questions two and three. My favorite part was setting a story in my city, Forth Worth. Although we're the other half of Dallas/Fort Worth, we sometimes get overlooked. I wanted a story that featured Cowtown. Putting a big bovine in the heart of the tale seemed the best way to do that.
 
Up next is "Risk Reduction" by L. A. Starks
 
If your family was threatened, how far would you go to save them? When her new boss makes a shocking request of her, a young financial analyst must reduce the risk to her family in the only way she can—by calculating the odds.
 
My favorite thing about writing this story was giving a taste of the cool, complex mix of people, neighborhoods, and cultures in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  
 
A key setting for my story is Munger Place in Old East Dallas. When I lived there, residents' aspirations and striving, like those of the main character in the story, were exemplified by a sign at a used-car lot: Su trabajo es su cr√©dito. "Your job is your credit." 
 
Our penultimate story is "Road Rage" by Pam McWilliams
 
A road-rage killing is more complicated than it first appears, especially when the  detective's lost love appears at his door with information that sheds light on the case. 

Two of my favorite characters from "Two-Legged Creatures"—my story in Malice in Dallas—couldn't stand each other for most of the story. But they reappear in "Road Rage," now with a complicated romantic history that took place in between the stories. I also like the way the road-rage killing is about a lot more than two angry drivers. 

Both the victim and the killer live north of the city in affluent areas, and I-75, where the road-rage incident takes place, is one of the fastest ways to get there from downtown, particularly late at night after an evening out.

And we wrap up the anthology with "The Mysterious Disappearance of Jason Whetstone" by Karen Harrington

A Garland journalist explores the disappearance of a mediator at Highland Park's Remedy Clinica venue that referees petty or odd disputesand unfurls the truth about his last two clients: sisters at odds over a family memory. Would one of them commit murder to win the argument?

The story unfurls from a journalist's point of view as she collects various interviews and records about the disappearance of Jason Whetstone, culminating in the kind of true-crime article you might find in a magazine. Writing it that way was challenging and fun as I'm a huge fan of that type of article. 

The crime is solved in Garland, Texas, where I grew up and also where the film Zombieland opens. That should tell you everything.

Barb again: And those are the ten stories in Reckless in Texas. We hope we've enticed you to pick up the anthology, which you can find on Amazon in trade paperback and ebook formats. Just click here. If you've read any of the anthology, we'd love to hear what you think. 

Finally, a little BSP before I go: I'm delighted to share that last week my story "The Gift" was named a finalist for this year's Thriller Award in the short story category. The story involves a high school principal who has always believed in setting a good example. But sometimes the line between right and wrong blurs
especially when family is involved.

"The Gift" was published last autumn in Land of 10,000 Thrills: Bouchercon Anthology 2022. Thanks to Greg Herren, who edited the anthology, and Down & Out Books, which published it, for including my story. You can buy the anthology through the usual online sources, including here. The Thriller Award winners will be announced on June 3rd.

21 February 2023

Canine Inspiration


A couple of years ago, I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, thinking how grateful I was that in our current home, my beagle/basset dog, Jingle, couldn't escape from our backyard. Things had been different at our prior home. The six-foot-high split-rail fence in the backyard had wire over it, and that wire was secured into the ground, so you'd think Jingle would have been contained. But where other dogs would see an obstacle, Jingle saw a challenge.

Regularly, he pushed at the wire, testing it for weak spots at ground level, then shoved through when he could. Friends nicknamed him Houdini. Over and over, I took steps to prevent Jingle from escaping, but he kept besting me. One day, after yet another escape, my good friend Donna Andrews (yes, Donna Andrews the author, who lived two miles away from my old house) suggested I buy some large heavy rocks to put on both sides of the fence wherever it was weak. She was going to the garden store and could pick them up for me. I said, yes, please. Soon, I found myself the proud new owner of a lot of rocks.

The dog otherwise known as Houdini
The dog otherwise known as Houdini

So, circling back to the start of this story, I was brushing my teeth and thinking about how Jingle used to escape from the backyard at our old house. After spitting my toothpaste out, I said, "Before I owned a dog, I never would have imagined I'd spend $37 on ROCKS." (Yes, I often talk aloud to myself.) Then I started thinking of all the other things I never would have done before I owned a dog, like buy a pink pig outfit--that was for my prior dog, Scout. It had been October when I adopted him, and that was the only extra-large Halloween costume I could find at that late date.

My old neighborhood had a Halloween party each year in our cul de sac, and when I took Scout that first year, one of the neighbors laughed at him--not with him, at him--trying to make me feel bad for dressing my large male dog in a pink pig costume. I brushed it off, but all these years later, I remember. So, I was thinking about all of this as I finished getting ready for bed that night, and my writer's brain kicked in. What if I created a character who adopted an escape-artist dog? And what if she had a mean neighbor who did worse than laugh at the dog? What might she do next? And "The Joys of Owning a Dog" was born. 

Look how cute he was!
The story is written in listicle format. It opens with: "Fifty things I never anticipated doing before I owned a dog." The rest of the story is told via a list, including buying rocks to contain my houdini of a dog, dressing my dog as a pig for Halloween, and dealing with a neighbor who hates my dog. (You gotta love real-life inspiration.) It's a crime-fiction story, with each element of the tale building on the prior one. Lest you fear, no animals were harmed in the writing of this story. I can't promise the same about mean neighbors. 

Thanks to editor Michael Bracken for publishing the story. You can read it in issue 13 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, released last week in trade paperback. You can purchase it by clicking here. The ebook should be out soon. The issue also includes stories from fellow SleuthSayers Eve Fisher and John Floyd, which I'm looking forward to reading.

And now, I have to go. Jingle is demanding royalties for partially inspiring this story. Thankfully, he takes his payment in treats.

31 January 2023

The Importance of Emotional Motivation in Fiction


I'm on vacation, so I'm rerunning a post from last winter (with minor changes). It's about the use of emotional motivation in crafting characters, using my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch" as a teaching tool. This column is timely because this story was named a finalist for the Agatha Award last week, sharing category honors with authors Cynthia Kuhn (for her story "There Comes a Time"), Lisa Q. Mathews (for her story "Fly Me to the Morgue"), Richie Narvaez (for his story "The Minnesota Twins Meet Bigfoot"), and my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor (for his story "The Invisible Band"). I'm looking forward to seeing them all at the Malice Domestic convention in April. But first ... emotional motivation.
 
Writers know their characters should be real, distinct, and engaging, but that's easy to say. How do you go about doing it? Focusing on voicewhat and how a character speaks and thinksis an important part of the process of making your characters come alive off the page. Another is understanding what drives the characters. This latter element played a key role when I wrote my newest story, "Beauty and the Beyotch," which was published last February in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Here's the teaser:
"Beauty and the Beyotch" is a story about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: their struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide?
These girls' motivations drive all the action in the story and make them who they are. So, who are they deep down?
 
Elaine is an insecure spoiled girl who yearns for acclaim and fame. She is afraid that Joni (her best friend, Meryl's, new pal) will get the starring role in their school's upcoming musical, Beauty and the Beasta part Elaine not only craves but believes is her due. Elaine is desperate to avoid such humiliation, which she fears would undermine her long-term goals.
Joni is shy, an introvert. The idea of auditioning for the show scares her. But she also badly wants to please her mother, who starred in her own high school productions and who keeps encouraging Joni to spread her wings and make some friends. So, despite her anxiety, Joni decides to try out for the spring musical.
Meryl is caught in the middle of her friends. More than anything, she wants to be a menscha good, kind person. It's what prompts her to befriend Joni, even after she learns Elaine doesn't like her, because she can see Joni needs a friend. Because of incidents from Meryl's past, being good and honest means more to her than anything else. But when Elaine's and Joni's goals collide, Meryl is forced to make heart-wrenching choices that strike at the essence of who she wants to be.
So, we have three distinct characters, each driven by something different. But are their goals substantial enough to justify their actions? To make them believable and to make readers care about what happens in the story?
 
The answer for Elaine is an easy yes. Her dream of becoming an actress is something people can understand, if not relate to. The longing for celebrity is well known in our culture, and Elaine believes getting the starring role in the school musical is a key part in her path to fame. In contrast, Joni's and Elaine's deepest desires are quieter. Joni wants to please her mother. Meryl wants to be a good person. I wonder if readers might be skeptical about these goals. Are they important enough to warrant being described as the girls' deepest desires? Are they strong enough to drive Joni's and Meryl's stories?
Thinking about crime fiction brings these questions and their answer into stark relief. When crimes are committed, we know that there can be a superficial reason driving the perpetrator as well as a more meaningful reason. For example, Bob Smith robs a bank because he needs to pay for his mom's nursing home. His reason is practical, but deep down, it's also very personal. He cannot allow himself to be the son who lets his mom down again, and he will risk anything to be a better person for her, even if it means being a bad person in the eyes of the law. What's driving Bob is personal, all about how he sees himself and wants to be seen in his mother's eyes. Yet I'm sure readers would think these needs are meaningful enough to believably drive his actions and could lead readers to become invested in what happens to Bob, even if they think his actions are wrong. 
 
With that in mind, let's return to Joni and Meryl. Just like Bob is driven by a personal reason, so are Joni and Meryl (and Elaine, for that matter). Each girl's past has turned her into the person she is as the story begins, be it a fame-seeker, a mother-pleaser, or a mensch. They're all desperate to get what they need emotionally, and those needs, those passions, those deepest desires, are believable, even if they aren't what many would think of as big dreams. They've set these three girls on a collision course, and the result is a story that I hope readers will find compelling.
So, when you are crafting your stories, think about what drives your characters deep down. It doesn't matter if their needs involve careers or more personal desires. It only matters that you make the characters feel real. Basing their actions on their emotional motivations will hopefully enable you to bring the characters to life in complex, compelling, and engaging ways.
 
Want to read "Beauty and the Beyotch"? You can read it on my website by clicking here. Or, if you'd prefer to buy the issue, it's available in ebook form and trade paperback from the usual online sources.