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

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 crédito. "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. 

10 January 2023

Three Great Books

As reading weeks go, the past one has been pretty good. I'm on vacation (mostly--when you work for yourself, you're never truly on vacation). With the Agatha Award nomination ballot due in four days, I'm reading madly. I read a ton last year, but there was way more published than anyone could possibly read. Still, I'm trying to get in as much as I can before I decide what to list in each category. 

As a result, since January 1, I've read five novels, one novelette, one short story, and I'm in the middle of two more novels. I also started one novel that I decided not to finish, and I'm hoping to get through two additional books by Friday night. If you're thinking I must be a fast reader, I'm not. But I can listen really well, and all but one of these books has been an audiobook. Thank you to my public library system for providing access to so many audiobooks. And Audible, thank you too.

So, today I'm going to share with you three of the books I've read in the past week. I don't usually have such good luck in such a short reading period, but these three reads are all ballot-worthy. (Well, I'm still reading one of them, but if it continues to be as good as it's been, it will be going on my ballot.)

Gone for Gouda by Korina Moss

This is the second novel in Korina Moss's Cheese Shop Mystery series. It's also the author's second published novel. You often hear of the sophomore slump, that the author's second book isn't as good as the first. That's not the case here. I really enjoyed Korina's first book (Cheddar Off Dead), and I liked Gone for Gouda even more. 

The series is set in a fictional small town in California's Sonoma Valley, where Willa Bauer owns a cheese shop. At the story's start, a famous chef is scheduled to give a presentation at Willa's shop. Soon before the event is scheduled to begin, the obnoxious chef is found dead, and one of Willa's employees is a suspect since he was the last person known to have seen her. Willa feels guilty because the employee wouldn't have been in the chef's company if it weren't for her, so she starts investigating--just to ensure the detective on the case has some other suspects, of course. The search for the killer  becomes a group effort, as Willa, her two employees, some close friends, and some others at times, work together to try to figure out whodunit. Among the things I liked about the book:

  • The characters are all different and enjoyable and caring. 
  • Willa has a wonderful friendship with her male next-door-neighbor. There are no sparks there, just friendship.
  • Willa shares information with the detective on the case, and he doesn't treat her like an annoyance.
  • The plot is complex, the writing is often funny, and the story includes a cute dog.
Overall, two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Magic, Lies, and Deadly Pies by Misha Popp

This is an unusual book. The main character, Daisy, comes from a magical family. Each daughter's ability comes in a different form. With Daisy, she can bake pies and infuse them with magic to give the eater what they need. If she thinks you need some confidence, for instance, she can bake some into your pie. And if you're a woman who is in a bad situation with a dangerous man--one you can't safely extract yourself from--she can bake you a murder pie. There's no poison in it. Just magic. If the man can change into a better person, wonderful. The pie makes that happen. But if he can't, then after he eats the pie, he dies. Her company works solely on referrals from previous customers, and it's called Pies Before Guys.

The author's voice is a delight, as is the book's concept. Not just the magic (I love magic) but how Daisy is trying to make a difference in the world at a micro level. As the book progresses, Daisy finds she has an unknown stalker, one threatening to expose her unless she meets his demands. She is determined to save herself, her business, and her fledgling relationship without compromising her principles, which includes not baking pies solely for revenge. I loved her positive attitude and her desire to help others. I loved her friends and the person she grows closest to as the book proceeds. And, big surprise, I loved her dog.

This is the author's first book (!), and the next one in the series comes out next month. I can't wait.

Sinkhole by Davida G. Breier

This is another debut novel. The book has two timelines. In the present, Michelle Miller is driving home to rural Florida--where she hasn't been since leaving for college fifteen years ago--because her mother is hospitalized. While she's driving, she's thinking about her last two years of high school--memories she has tried to forget since she moved away. Michelle grew up poor, but her best friend in high school was rich. She also was manipulative, but Michelle didn't see that then. We see the girls' friendship from the beginning until ... I'm expecting ... the end. (I'm not sure because this is one of the two books I'm in the middle of.)

The book opens with this sentence: "When I was eighteen, I killed my best friend." Early on, we learn how the friend died--at least what the newspaper said. I'm expecting there was a lot more to it. I'm halfway through the book, and I'm eager for what's to come. The characters are complex, the setting is lush, the author's voice is strong, and she can really turn a phrase. Plus, I love all the details about the eighties. Overall, the book is hard to put down, and I'm going to get back to it as soon as I hit publish on this post. 

Happy reading in 2023. And if you're still thinking about your Agatha ballot choices, I'd be pleased if you'd consider including my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch." You can read it on my website by clicking here.

20 December 2022

Gift Ideas for the Readers and Writers in Your Life

If you're reading this blog, you most likely love to read crime fiction. Maybe you also write it. With that in mind, and because we're in the midst of the holiday season (and because I'm swamped with work), I'm pulling this goodie out of the archives with some updates.  I cordially present (cue the trumpets) ...


First we'll start with gifts for readers

Love Beacon

You think this is a book bag, right? It is, but it's so much more.

We'll start with its function as a bag. Every reader needs a book bag. Something to take with her to the library or when she's out and about. It shouldn't be too small because she might finish the book she's reading and need another one. She shouldn't be caught without options. So she'll need to carry several books with her wherever she goes. So make that bag sturdy.

But sturdiness is only one important quality of the bag. It should say something. Does your reader love sci fi? Make sure your bag shows it. Or does your reader coo at cozy mysteries? Let the bag share that with the world. Or, if your reader has eclectic taste, you can simply use the bag to proclaim that its owner loves books. But the bag should make a statement because a book bag can do more than carry books. A book bag can help readers find each other. So keep that in mind when shopping. With a book bag, you're not just giving a tote, you're giving a love beacon--a signal someone can send to the world that she is a reader. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will see the beacon and respond. What better thing to bond over than books?

Book Light

You might have bought a book light decades ago and realized they weren't made well. You might have even had a store clerk at a Waldenbooks discourage you from buying a book light back in the eighties because of their poor quality. (Nope. That wasn't me. No, siree.) But today's book lights have come of age. Not only do they work well, but they're lightweight and pretty. Oh so pretty. Doesn't the reader on your list deserve a sturdy way to read in bed without the lamp on. (And to that point, doesn't the reader's mate deserve a way for the reader to read in bed without the lamp on?) So buy a book light. It's a gift for two, all in one.


While any bookends are better than no bookends, consider these adorable metal ones of a librarian pulling a book from a shelf (or maybe she's putting a book back). They look like a bibliophile's dream and are sold in a number of places. Search for "librarian bookend," and they'll come up. That said, you'd think bookends would be sold in pairs. These, alas, are not, so if you want these bookends plural, order two.

Go for the Gold

Book bags, book lights, and bookends are nice, you're thinking, but you want to show the reader in your life just how much you love her. Isn't there something nicer (read: pricier) you can buy? But of course. First, there's an e-reader. Yes, most people who would like a e-reader already have them, but I'd be remiss without mentioning them. When wrists get weak, e-readers can be easier to hold than books. And when eyes get tired, e-readers let you increase the type size, which can be nice too. And if you want a book and have an e-reader, you can click and have that book at your disposal in mere seconds, which is a pretty nifty thing indeed.

But, Barb, you're saying. I don't want to give an e-reader. I want to truly show the love of my life that I get her, right down to her introverted little toes. What can I buy that will show her I understand her completely? (Besides, of course, a vacation for her alone with her books.)

Well, okay. Get out your wallet. Besides a gift card for books, the best thing you can buy a reader is a ... bookshelf. Or two. Or two dozen. More and more and more. There are small bookshelves to go into niches in your bedroom. There are large bookshelves to cover walls in your study. And then, there's the granddaddy gift of them all:


Nothing says love like a built-in bookshelf. Be still my page-turning heart. (But Barb, it's too late to order built-ins. We're in the middle of Hanukkah. Christmas is in five days. To that I say, it's never to early to start planning for next year. Get to it!)

Moving on to Gifts for Writers

The Anti-Welcome Mat

We all know the standard ways people indicate they don't want others knocking on their doors. The Beware Dog sign. The doormat beseeching you to Go Away. The sock on the handle of a dorm room door, indicating that ... well, you know.

Writers need something like this too. All too often, a person toiling at home (especially someone who spends his days making up conversations for imaginary people) is viewed as interruptible.

"Mom, where are the cookies?"

"Have you checked the jar?"  Grumble, grumble.

"Dad, I'm bored."

"Then play with the dog." Even more grumbling.

"Honey, the house is on fire."

"I swear, if I get interrupted one more time I--oh, wait. That's an interruption I'm okay with."

Let's hope that house fires are few and far between. For those other times, your writer needs a way to nicely tell the member of his family to Go Away. So here we have it, a simple sign the writer can hang on his office door. Interrupt thereafter at your peril.

Page Holder

Until you've tried to type in edits, hunching forward to look down at a page on your desk then looking back up to your screen, then hunching forward again to find your place, then straightening up to type the next edits in before hunching once more, over and over and over, you haven't typed in edits first done on paper. Yes, some authors might do all their editing on the computer, but many people edit and proofread the old-fashioned way.
That's where a Page Holder comes in. It allows you to have your pages standing upright, so you can sit in the same position, with your eyes on the pages and your fingers on the keys, typing away. And when you need to look to the screen, it's so much easier moments later to simply scan to the left to find your place again on the paper page. This may seem like something silly or unnecessary, but oh my goodness, the writer in your life may need it.

An editor

Every writer needs an editor. You never know when you might be telling too much instead of showing, or writing stilted dialogue, or not recognizing a plot hole so big Big Foot could fit through it. That's why it's always good to get a second pair of eyes, especially someone who specializes in this type of work.

Some authors rely on critique groups, and they can be great. But sometimes an author needs a professional. A freelance editor. This can be especially true for authors trying to sell a first manuscript and authors planning to self-publish. But freelance editors can be pricey, so if you love an author, perhaps the best present you can give is the gift of an editor's time.

So, do you have a great gift you can recommend for the reader or writer in your life? Please share in the comments. And happy holidays!

29 November 2022

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

This is an updated version of a column I ran seven years ago with public-speaking tips for authors, though I think the advice could apply to most any public speaker.

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we call Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had new stories or novels published that year can tell the audience about them, and a local bookseller is on hand to sell the authors' works. In November we appear at a library in Ellicott City, Maryland. In December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. These events are free and open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. They offer the audience a good opportunity to support local authors and a local indie bookstore at the same time. (After all, it is the holiday season, and books make great giftsfor others and yourself!)

For the past two years, the events have been held online, but this year, we're back to meeting in person. We started having our extravaganzas annually when I was chapter president fifteen years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and since our December extravaganza will be this Saturday (keep reading to the end for more details), I figured this would be a good time to share some public-speaking tips:

  • Keep it snappyHit the high points without going into unnecessary detail. The authors who keep the audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters or drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. For instance, here's the gist of what I'll say this weekend about my story "For Bailey" (from the anthology Low Down Dirty Vote Volume III): If you've ever cursed your neighbors for setting off fireworks, scaring your pets, you'll identify with teenager Jocelyn. Her town's about to vote on a proposed fireworks ban. Fearing it won't pass, she and two friends come up with an unconventional method to encourage one of the councilmembers to vote their way.
  • Don't be too briefThis is your chance to talk to readers who are interested in what you have to say, so make sure you go into enough detail to make them think, "Ooh, that sounds good. I want to read that." While you don't have to use all the time allotted to you, don't be so eager to get off the stage that you don't share what makes your story or book interesting.
  • Consider if you have interesting backstory to share, perhaps what prompted you to write your book or an interesting research tidbit. For instance, my story "Go Big or Go Home" (published this year in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Diabolical) was inspired by a lot of unsolicited advice I've received on Facebook. In the past I've heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. Public speaking can be scary, and writing down what you want to say may help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. If it would be helpful to have notes, bring them, but they should address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "Five Days to Fitness" (from the anthology Murder in the Mountains) my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character, her problem, her solution
    • The setting
    • It's a whodunit
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice doing so. Have someone you trustsomeone not afraid to tell you the truthlisten to you read so they can tell you if you're good at it. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions too.) The cover of this year's Bouchercon anthology (Land of 10,000 Thrills, which has my story "The Gift") is wonderfully eye-catching, but I wouldn't want the audience to be so distracted by the bloody axe on the cover that they don't listen to what I have to say. 
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my favorite of my stories published this year, "Beauty and the Beyotch," from issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.
It's a tale about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: the struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide? While you can buy the issue in paper and ebook formats from the usual online sources, I've put the story on my website for easy reading. Just click here.
Want to attend our extravaganza this Saturday (12/3)? It starts at 1 p.m. at the Reston, Virginia, library. 11925 Bowman Towne Drive. The 20 authors who'll be appearing are: Donna Andrews, Kathryn Prater Bomey, Maya Corrigan, Ellen Crosby, Barb Goffman (yep, that's me!), Sherry Harris, Smita Harish Jain, Maureen Klovers, Tara Laskowski, Con Lehane, Eileen Haavik McIntire, Kathryn O'Sullivan, Susan Reiss, Frances Schoonmaker, Mary Stojak, Lane Stone/Cordy Abbott, Shannon Taft, Art Taylor, Robin Templeton, and Cathy Wiley. You'll be able to buy books from Scrawl Books. No RSVP necessary to attend. Just put it on your calendar and come on by.