Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Birthday Gift --- for YOU!

Sometime in the next few weeks, I will be celebrating my birthday. I won't tell you exactly when, because for identity theft protection purposes, I protect the date almost as well as I protect my social security number and full name. I will divulge that I am a Leo. And, don't ask how old I'm going to be either! ;-)

To celebrate, instead of collecting gifts, I am giving one away--in a contest that I'm running both here and on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors. I will give away a personalized autographed copy of one of my books (your choice), plus a selection of books written by other mystery authors, to one lucky winner.

How do you enter the contest, you ask? I would like to encourage people to sign up as followers both here and on Inkspot. So, that's all you have to do to be entered! Sometime in the next 4 weeks, sign up as a Google/blogger follower on both blogs. If you're already a follower of both blogs, you're already entered into the contest.

At the end of 4 weeks, when I'm due to post here again, I will use a random number generator to pick the blogger profile of someone who follows both blogs. Then I'll contact you through the email associated with that profile to find out your mailing address and send you the books. That's all it takes. So, if you ever read this blog or Inkspot, now you've got a good reason to sign up as a regular follower!

To encourage comments, I'd like to know what your thoughts are on author contests. Do you enter them often? What kinds of prizes do you prefer? Do you prefer ongoing contests (such as the one that I keep running all the time for subscribers to my email newsletter) or contests that are one-time shots like this one? Do you prefer that the prize be divulged ahead of time, or would you rather have it be a mystery?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Engineering a Mystery

I have begun a new manuscript, and each time I do that, I flounder around for awhile, throwing ideas into a file until things start to gel and I begin envisioning crucial scenes in my mind. Then I apply my engineering background to build some scaffolding for the project or to formulate a recipe for the mystery.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In the case of this new manuscript, the sleuth is well-defined in my mind. This will be the third Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery, so Claire and I are old friends--no matter how much trouble I force her into!

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! I've defined a victim for this project and given him a family that will sorely miss him. I think I've even decided who will be knocked off mid-way in the book, though that may change.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on. In To Hell in a Handbasket, the victim dies on the ski slope by being knocked into a tree by another skier—or snowboarder. I'm not going to divulge how this new victim dies, but I can tell you that more than one living being was involved in the death. :)

The third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. In this new manuscript, bringing in suspects is driving the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study. I've already decided that the victim will work for Claire's brother and his body will be discovered at her brother's place of business, a new trail-riding stable that he's opened in Colorado Springs after moving his business and horses there from Durango. Claire's brother's wife will operate a hippotherapy charity at the stable, and the victim's brother will be a client. Hippotherapy is the use of horses with physically and mentally challenged children and adults to help them gain confidence, muscle strength, balance, and greater flexibility.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special momento of the crime. I try to sprinkle to discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in A Real Basket Case that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I'm still working on my clues and red herrings. I like to have at least half a dozen, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It's a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I'll ever come up with the final product--a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I've done it five times before, so I should be able to do it again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Visiting the Killer Crafts and Crafty Killers Blog

Today I and my gift basket designer sleuth, Claire Hanover, will be visiting the Killer Crafts and Crafty Killers blog. Claire has written a post about "Tips for Effective Gift Baskets" and will be available to answer questions about designing gift baskets and about her adventures in A Real Basket Case and To Hell in a Handbasket. I'll be available to answer questions about my writing. I hope it will be a fun and interesting day! Please make a comment there.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My mystery author guest: Jeri Westerson

As promised yesterday, mystery/suspense author Jeri Westerson is visiting my blog today, or at least her sleuth, Crispin Guest, is! Above is the cover photo for the second book in Jeri's Medieval Noir series, Serpent in the Thorns. The upcoming third book, The Demon's Parchment, will be released in October. If you haven't read the first two books in the series, Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns, yet, I suggest you do it quickly, so you'll be ready to devour the third book when it comes out.

First, Jeri will give us an overview of the series, then Crispin will tell us about himself:

I write a medieval mystery series decidedly different from your average medieval mystery fare. My detective is no monk. Far from it, and these stories are situated not in the glittering halls of court, but down in the gutter of a dark and sinister city. This is the tale of a hard-boiled medieval PI as told by the man himself, Crispin Guest, ex-knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Thirty years old in 1384, Crispin was cast out of the only life he had ever known, that of a privileged upbringing, with all the trappings of the wealthy and the ear of the King’s court. All that was lost to him when, seven years earlier, he committed treason for what he thought was the good of the country. When he should have been executed, his mentor the duke of Lancaster spoke up for him and instead of an ignoble and certainly painful death, Crispin was given back his life, though all else was forfeit; his lands, his title, his wealth—in short, everything that defined who he was. He found a new home on the Shambles, the pungent butcher’s district of London. He re-invented himself as “the Tracker,” a medieval detective, earning sixpence a day…plus expenses.

Crispin made friends of tradesmen and merchants, and, most notably, Jack Tucker, a young orphan boy who spent his time on the streets as a cutpurse and, much to Crispin's chagrin, insinuates himself into Crispin's life as his servant.

Crispin cannot help but think of himself as a knight even though he no longer wears a sword.

But let's let him tell it:

I am not an irreligious man. My faith is my own. And it is private. I believe in belief, for what it is worth. It is in a man's actions that has far more sway with me. What a man leaves behind, his legacy, can be material, but far greater can be his mark upon the world by his actions. This is the intangible, that which cannot be measured on a scale or in a money pouch.

When I consider myself in this scheme, I naturally do not see a legacy of coins to leave behind, or even an estate. That was forfeit long ago. No, what I see is a bit of Jack Tucker's eyes. Perhaps he shall be my legacy. Perhaps the name of Crispin Guest will not be spat upon the street in words of reproach, but in the whispered tone of respect and admiration. Here was a man, they might say, that rose above his past, his lot. Here was a man whose footsteps led to justice; who righted wrongs; who helped his fellow man...

Ah, but then. I look into the eyes of the sheriff, into the eyes of my fellow man, and I see only disdain and bitterness. These dark streets of London do not hold redemption for me. They hold only the stink of man's hatred for himself. His noble bearing straightens only so that he might kick a lowlier man. He looks away from the hunger and despair lying mere steps away in the bleak shadows. He uses his opportunity not to give charitably but to snip a money pouch or slit a throat, whichever is easiest.

My legacy, then, is a secret one. I will do what I must. And I will see no indulgence granted to me. No lessening of my Purgatory here on the Shambles. If God grants me peace, it shall be the long sleep in the cold ground of a London graveyard. If I am lucky, my name might be etched upon a stone paid for by the few friends I have managed to acquire. If not, well. Perhaps Jack Tucker will grow to his majority a man who once knew a former knight; a knight who taught him a bit of a rusty code that he took into his manhood like the blunted blade that hangs at his hip; used it when he could, and perhaps invoked the name of Crispin Guest not as a curse, but as a brief blessing.


Okay, readers, fire away! What would you like to know from a medieval former knight? Something about daily life in those times, about court politics, the code of the knight, or what? And if you have a question for Jeri, I'm sure Crispin will let her butt in, too. Please visit Jeri's website to read excerpts from her books and watch her really cool series book trailer.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tomorrow's Guest Blogger: Jeri Westerson!

Tomorrow, fellow mystery/suspense author Jeri Westerson will be a guest on my blog. Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Reporter, would-be actress, graphic artist; these are the things she spent her time on before creating the newest hardboiled detective, Crispin Guest—ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London in her Medieval Noir series. The Boston Globe called her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut, Veil of Lies, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, Serpent in the Thorns, is also a 2010 finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, and her third, The Demon's Parchment, is due for release October 12.

Instead of Jeri answering my interview questions, her sleuth Crispin Guest will talk about himself, then he will be available to answer questions from readers of my blog. Tomorrow should be an interesting day! For more information about Jeri, Crispin, and Jeri's books, please visit her website.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book clubs, book clubs, book clubs!

My schedule has been blooming with with book clubs lately. Last Thursday, I met with the book club at the Pikes Peak Towers, a seniors high rise complex in Colorado Springs. Members were in their 60s, 70s and 80s and were all very alert and astute. And it was a good-looking bunch, too, as you can see from the photo! They fired questions at me faster than I could answer them, and we had a lively discussion about my books and the writing life.

I had so much fun with the group that I recommended they contact a couple of author friends of mine who live nearby to ask them to meet with them, too. Since the group checked copies of my books out of the local library to read before I came, and most are on a limited, fixed income, I didn't expect any sales. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when some members bought personalized autographed copies from me.

Then last Friday, I met with a small book club in Colorado Springs, whose organizer is a friend of the owner of a local independent bookstore that hosted me for signings of A Real Basket Case and To Hell in a Handbasket. It's great how word-of-mouth about my books is spreading in my home town, at least! Again the discussion was very lively. One of the members had self-published a book, so it was interesting to compare the processes of traditional and self publishing. I hope I convinced her to join Pikes Peak Writers and that my promotion tips will be useful to her.

Soon, my own book club will be holding its meeting. We read literary, mainstream, and women's fiction books, primarily, with an occasional nonfiction thrown in. Being a member of this book club stretches my reading beyond the mysteries that are my typical fare and gives me a chance to drink wine and gossip with friends from my neighborhood--and discuss some good books, too! This month we will discuss The Faith Club, A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew--Three Women Search for Understanding. This is a pretty meaty book about religion that pulls no punches, so it I'm sure it will make for a very interesting discussion. Of course, that's why we picked it! Next month, we're reading Tallgrass by a Colorado author, Sandra Dallas.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My mystery author guest: Cricket McRae

As promised yesterday, mystery author Cricket McRae is is is visiting my blog today to answer interview questions. Above is a cover photo of Something Borrowed, Something Bleu, the fourth book in her Home Crafting mystery series, which was just released on July 1st. In the book, Sophie Mae has accepted Barr's marriage proposal, and they're trying to keep her mother, Anna Belle, from taking over their no-fuss, no-muss wedding plans. But when Mom finds a cryptic suicide note Sophie Mae's brother wrote two decades earlier, Sophie Mae must return to her hometown of Spring Creek, Colorado to suss things out.

See what Cricket has to say in response to my questions below, and feel free to ask her additional questions in comments.

Interview with Cricket McRae:

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I’m envious of people who started writing when they were three years old and never stopped. That wasn’t me. But when I was nineteen I wrote in my journal that I would be a mystery author. A shiver ran down my back, and I knew it was a True Statement. Since then I simply assumed I would be a writer, and stabbed at it a bit during college and my corporate career without a great deal of follow-through. In my mid-thirties I decided to really dive in. A much rewritten version of my first mystery novel snagged an agent, who sold Lye in Wait, my first Home Crafting Mystery, to Midnight Ink. That original mystery remains unpublished, though.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

For primary characters I like clustering. I fill up whole notebooks with little circles filled with words attached to other little circles filled with words. It’s weirdly right-brained, and a good way to get to know someone, to figure out why someone would actually kill someone else, and to understand motivation and cause and effect. I often use clustering for plotting individual scenes as well.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I have a rough outline of what’s going to happen and then see how the characters like it as I write. It always changes a lot. I inevitably start out thinking I know how the book will end, and then something happens and about sixty percent through I really find out. Then I go back and change things to reflect the real ending and finish up the book.

By the way, that’s not a method I recommend to anyone. If I could figure out how to do it differently, I would.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

They go hand in hand, though for me it’s a combination of character and situation to begin with. A swaggering cowgirl with a bad mouth isn’t suitable for a cozy mystery featuring crafts and cooking. Likewise my protagonist, Sophie Mae Reynolds, would be the wrong type of character for a psychological thriller. Since I write a series, I already know the characters. I figure out the situation, which usually centers around the featured home craft, and then determine the ancillary characters. Finally, I plot within that framework.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

Right now feeling randomized is my biggest challenge. I’m promoting one book, polishing another manuscript, reworking a third, and developing proposals for two other mystery series for my agent to look over. Between that and the usual summer fare of gardening, golf, house renovations, visitors and a bit of fun, changing my focus from project to project has been a challenge.

Trying to stay organized and mindfully moving from one task to another helps keep my concentration sharp. I also tell myself that all the variety feeds my creative well rather than depleting it. That actually might be true. ; - )

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

I rarely write fiction at night, though that’s often when I write my blog posts. When I’m working on a first draft I try for an average of ten pages a day, five days a week. I try not to take two days off in a row, though. When I’m rewriting or editing I think in terms of hours – usually four hours a day is about right to stay on track.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Learn your craft and be persistent. Write a lot. Then learn some more and write some more. Repeat.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

As much as I go on about cooking from scratch and eating real food on my blog and even in my mysteries, I have a strong and secret love of SpaghettiOs with Franks. I like them hot, sprinkled with potato chips or grated cheese, even spooned out of the can cold. Though I haven’t eaten them for five years or more, I’m embarrassed to say my mouth is actually watering as I write this.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I just finished the fifth Home Crafting Mystery, Wined and Died, which features mead making as the home crafting backdrop to the murder and mayhem. I’ll be spending a lot of time promoting Something Borrowed, Something Bleu for the next few months as I develop the sixth in the series, and then I’ll get down to work on that. Eventually I hope to have a second mystery series and write the occasional standalone.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

If you want to know any more about my Home Crafting Mystery Series or about me, please visit my website. My blog features my musings on writing and all things domestic. I’m available to attend book club meetings in person within 40 miles of Fort Collins, CO or via cell phone or Skype. You can find discussion questions for my books on my website.

And finally, a big Thank You, Beth!

Okay, readers, fire away! And given Cricket's revelation about her SpaghettiOs with Franks craving, let's all divulge our secret food cravings. He, he, he! ;-) I'll go first. Along with dark, dark chocolate, which everyone who knows me at all knows that I crave like the dickens, my comfort food is cinnamon graham crackers dipped in vanilla yogurt. I can eat a whole pack (a third of a box) at one sitting, which is why I don't do it often!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tomorrow's Guest Blogger: Cricket McRae!

Tomorrow, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Cricket McRae will be a guest on my blog. Cricket's interest in traditional colonial skills is reflected in her contemporary Home Crafting Mysteries. Set primarily in the Pacific Northwest, they feature everything from soap making to food preservation, spinning to cheese making. She currently resides in northern Colorado. So, as well as sharing a publisher with me, Cricket lives in my state. And I must say that there's no more mutually supportive group of mystery authors than those who live in Colorado!

Cricket's latest release is Something Borrowed, Something Bleu. For more information about her and her books, please visit her website. Cricket has agreed to answer some interview questions, and I'm sure you'll be intrigued by what she has to say. Then, feel free to ask her some questions of your own!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Solving A Murder Mystery During Dinner

A week and a half ago, my husband and I attended The Dinner Detective interactive murder mystery dinner show in Denver, Colorado, at the invitation of the Executive Producer, Stephen Wilder. Along with their Denver location, this company puts on its fun shows in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Golden.

I sold copies of my Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery books before and after the show and gave a short presentation before the show. In the presentation I defined the essential ingredients of a mystery (victim, suspects, means, motives, opportunity, alibis, clues, and red herrings), gave examples from my books, and suggested that the assembled guests look for those ingredients in the show they were about to participate in. The two photos below show me at my book-selling table before the event and giving my presentation. Note the taped body outline on the floor in the second photo!

As you can see behind my signing table, the evening began with a cocktail reception with appetizers, where guests were given lists of questions to ask other guests and told to suspect anyone wearing a nametag of being a killer. After my presentation in the dining room, the action began quickly with a bloody knifing victim stumbling into the room and falling conveniently into position on the taped body outline. Two detectives burst into the room, told us we were all suspects, and began questioning dinner guests. We received copies of clues they found to study at our tables, and more action, clues, and questioning occurred between each course. The detectives even improvised and referred back to my presentation to get us all thinking about how to solve the mystery.

I won't give away anything about the show, but I will tell you that my husband and I had a great time, with lots of laughs and analysis of the clues with our table mates. All the ingredients are there to solve the mystery, but they're hard to find! We managed to figure out "who dunnit" (most in the room didn't), but we didn't tease out the whole backstory of WHY the killer had done it before the denouement. The energetic actors did a wonderful job of involving all of us in the puzzle. I highly recommend you go to The Dinner Detective website and sign up to attend one of these productions. You'll be guaranteed to enjoy the evening!

Monday, July 05, 2010

More Whitewater Rafting Research in the Royal Gorge

On July first, I joined a dozen other intrepid souls--family and friends--for a whitewater rafting trip through the Royal Gorge, carved by the Arkansas River in Colorado. The trip was arranged through Raftmasters in Canon City, Colorado. Our group filled two rafts, guided by Raftmasters owner, Dennis, and one of his guides, Kiel. I was in Kiel's raft, and two questions I always ask river guides are how they got into the guiding business and what they do in the winter. Kiel, like Dennis, was an unhappy engineer with a love of the outdoors who fell in love with guiding after taking Raftmasters's guide training course. In the winter, he is a snowmobile tour guide for Monarch Tours in Monarch, Colorado. Of course, I got some great stories of wipeouts and disastrous groups from him, too, that will be fodder for my RM Outdoor Adventure mysteries starring river ranger Mandy Tanner.

The 12 mile Royal Gorge section from Parkdale to Canon City that we ran consisted of class III and IV rapids with names like Sunshine Falls, Squeeze Box, Sledgehammer, Wallslammer, and Boat Eater. At high water, at least one of these rapids can become a class V, so guides don't take commercial trips down the river when the flow is over 3000 cfs (cubic feet per second). The river was running at around 1500 cfs the day we ran it, a nice medium level. We were all outfitted with helmets and PFDs (personal floatation devices), and most of us opted to wear wetsuits in case we took a swim. Good thing I did, because I got bounced mostly out of the raft once, hanging on by only one foot wedged under a thwart. Our trusty guide, Kiel, was able to haul me back into the boat before I went totally into the river.

The photos below are a combination of ones shot by my husband with his camera in a waterproof box and those by a professional photographer on the bank as we went through one class IV rapid. The first photo shows my family on the left side of the raft, and the second shows me in the back with our guide, Kiel.

The next four photos are shots by the professional photographer of us going through the rapid. My son swears that he's uttering a war cry "whoop" in the second one, not yelling "O- Sh--!" ;-)

The first photo below shows the Royal Gorge bridge above friend Joe, a 6'11" basketball player who along with my son provided the "power strokes" in the front of the raft. The last one shows the other raft holding the rest of our group as we were engaged in a hot and heavy (or cold and wet) splash battle. Good fun all around, and I'd recommend Raftmasters to anyone planning a Royal Gorge or Bighorn Sheep Canyon rafting trip!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

A festival, a signing, and moving a county line

How's that for a title? The weekend before last was hopping in Salida, Colorado because it was the weekend of the 62nd annual First in Boating on the Arkansas (FIBArk) festival in town. My husband and I drove out to Salida from Colorado Springs for three reasons that Friday: to scout out locations for the second book (Wicked Eddies) in my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures mystery series, to spend the afternoon at the festival, then to conduct a signing at the Book Haven bookstore in downtown Salida.

I blogged in a companion post today at Inkspot about scouting out a location for my opening scene in Wicked Eddies, and I explain there why I am going to have to move a county line in the book to suit my purposes. I show photos there of where the dead body and other evidence will be.

Below are some photos of the FIBArk festival, which is great fun even for non-boaters. The last two photos are of the Book Haven storefront and of me having a nice chat over tea and cookies with the lovely owner, Lisa Marvel. Lisa has created a marvelous place in Salida for browsing new and used book titles, especially those related to Colorado, so if you visit the area I suggest you drop in.

PS. My husband took the photos both here and on the Inkspot blog. Isn't he a great photographer!?