The Story Behind The Story

Recently I finished the the first draft of The Culinary Art of Murder, Book 6 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries. Although I’ve been working on it for months, day in day out, writing, rewriting, I call it the first draft because at long last, the novel has a beginning, a middle and an end. Yes, I tend to write by the seat of my pants – thus called a panster – but what happened several days ago was a first, even for me. I discovered I had no ending. I start a new book when the first chapter is shouting itself in my brain, the characters screaming to be heard. I may let the middle unveil itself, but I know who the killer is, and how the book will wind up. Business as usual with Culinary Art. Or so I thought. As I pounded the keyboard toward the ending, I found the ending I’d envisioned wasn’t going to work. Too forced, too contrived. I panicked, and not just a little. After all, I’d written 78 thousand words. The characters, situations, thoughts, feelings, actions, and clues were finished. Or were they? Where was my plot? My finish line simply vanished. So I put the manuscript away hoping I’d find the way. I prayed, I wept, I ate chocolate. Lo and behold several nights ago or should I say mornings ago, I woke up at 4 AM realizing the end would work if I just changed my approach. So I did. When I figured out what I was doing wrong, the final chapters flowed. Now I’ve printed everything out – all 82K – and will begin the rewrites. Then off to the editor. Then off to my beta readers. After those people tear it apart, I will try to put it back together again. All …

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I followed Walter Mosley!

No, not as a stalker but as a fellow author, and I am still jazzed about it. As part of Mystery Writers of America, I was one of eight authors doing a reading for Noir at the Bar for the Bay Area Book Festival on June 3rd. The other authors were (reading from right to left): moderator Tony Broadbent (standing), Bill Moody, Mysti Berry, Nick Mamatas, Walter Mosley, yours truly, Hans Olav Lahlum, Randall S. Brandt and Laurie R. King. Hope some of the surrounding talent rubbed off on me. I’d like to mention Walter Mosley, author of the fabulous Easy Rawlins Series. He read an excerpt from the first of the series, Devil in a Blue Dress. The man wears a mean fedora, is an incredible writer, and a fine reader. If you haven’t read this novel, please do so. You could even rent the movie starring Denzel Washington. Or do both;  you can’t go wrong. I am also a huge fan of Laurie R. King’s work. Among other works, she is author of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Let me mention, Ms. King is president of Mystery Writers of America, NoCal Chapter. Long may she reign. The lady lets no grass grow under her feet. Her latest novel, The Murder of Mary Russell, is mystery fiction at its finest.  But you could start with the first of her series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Whatever book of hers you pick up to read, once again, you can’t go wrong. I read from The CEO Came DOA, Book 5 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries and to pound it into the ground, I followed Walter Mosley! I mean, how cool is that? I want that in my epitaph and on my tombstone!

Cruising as a Writer’s Retreat

My husband and I do a lot of cruises. In fact, we recently got back from a cruise to Alaska which showed that state to be wondrous in many ways. Just look at Mendenhall glacier. Oh yes, and Victoria BC’s Butchart Gardens, built in an abandoned quarry. It’s incredible! Flowers, plants, trees, and waterfalls that inspire more wonderment. But first, to write! As we sailed from San Francisco, I knew I had 2 and 1/2 days of watery nothingness ahead of me before we got to the land of glaciers, huskies and moose. So I sat down at my computer, looked out the balcony door at the greyness of life and began to do more writing than I can ever accomplish at home.   No cleaning, no making beds, no cooking, no errands, no distractions by lovable but demanding cats.         Or a demanding husband. He ran around the ship going to every entertainment venue, or practiced his guitar, and left me in peace. I could even order room service, if I liked. And I liked! We don’t go on another cruise until September. I’ll have to squeeze in some writing time until then. Still working on The Culinary Art of Murder, Book 6 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries. Here’s to cruising!  

Honeymoons Can Be Murder, a Novelette

Hi, everyone. I’m excited about the new Lee Alvarez Mysteries, beginning with Honeymoons Can Be Murder, a Novelette, Book One. This new, shorter spin-off series of The Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries was a lot of fun to write. And I’m hearing readers are enjoying it, too. I’m so glad, because I plan to write more! Below is the blurb. Honeymoons Can Be Murder, A Novelette. When PI Lee Alvarez goes on her honeymoon with bridegroom, Gurn Hanson, they find a dead woman practically on their doorstep. Kauai breezes may be soft, but there are gale force winds of accusation against Gurn. Will Lee find the real killer before her new hubby gets sent to a Hawaiian hoosegow?  

Ringling Brothers Circus, Mom and Me

So long, Ringling Brothers. You were a large part of my life from since I can remember. I even used the every day life of the circus, fueled by stories told me by my mother, as the subject for a standalone mystery noir, Death of a Clown. But more on that later. Judy Garland used to sing the song, “I Was Born In A Trunk At The Princess Theater.” I often sing “I Was Born ON A Trunk At Ringling Brothers Circus.” That’s because my parents met and married at Ringling Brothers during the early forties. She started out as a First of May, he an elephant handler. Her professional name was Jerull Deane. His was Whitey Haven. Within a couple of years, Mom worked her way up to a specialty act with the elephants. My father worked his way up to being head elephant trainer. They both loved working with these large but sweet-natured animals. My mother used to say one of the reasons she fell in love with my father was because he didn’t use the eye hook, or let any of his men use them, either. He was kind and loving to his charges, and she adored the man all the more for it. Topsy was one of the elephants Mom worked with and she liked to tell stories about her beloved pachyderm. As a married couple, they had a little more privacy than other people, and lived in a small trailer on the back lot next to the animals. One of her favorite stories was about the time she took up baking. She would bake a fruit pie – apple, peach, berry, depending on what you could get right after the war – and put them on the windowsill in front of a partially opened window to cool. …

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How Real Are Your Characters to You?

Are you ever emotionally drained by writing certain scenes, and how real are your characters to you? This is the latest subject of Robin Round Blog. And it’s a doozy. Because when I write, I not only become the characters, I become every living thing. And not so living. Like a car. I don’t know how much I actually relate to the 1957 Chevy convertible owned by protagonist, Lee Alvarez (see left). But I do know if I hurt its fender, I will feel its pain. I pound on the keyboard switching between characters in a positively schizophrenic manner. It’s kinda frightening. I remember when I was writing Death Runs in the Family, the third book of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries. I had just gotten to a place in the scene where two of the running characters, cats Tugger and Baba, were catnapped. I’m not sure why I had to – who can remember – but I abandoned my writing for several days. Thus the cats. Some silliness about the real world calling. Anyway, when I left the little darlings in the story, they’d been snatched and stowed in the back of a station wagon heading for Las Vegas. In fiction time, they were trapped in their carriers for less than four hours. But in Heather Time, it was days. The hours ticked by. It weighed on me. I would try to give myself an occasional sharp jolt of reality, but myself didn’t care. In the middle of the third night I jerked to a sitting position in bed, jostling my husband awake. He said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I have to go rescue the cats. They’ve had no food or water for three days.” There was a pause. “What cats? They’re sleeping at the foot of the bed.” Of course, he meant our real …

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Ellie’s Spa Days

Ellie (Elphaba Queen of da Nile) is my cat, one of two. I love her to pieces. She is a high maintenance cat, but it’s not her fault. When she was a kitten she got the standard upper respiratory infection kittens seem to get and get over. I know my other cat, Yulie (Yul Brenner, King of Siam),  got it first, gave it to Ellie, but he got well. She got worse, pneumonia. I worked like the devil around the clock to save her and I did. But she has scar tissue on her lungs which led to asthma. I write all this because one thing led to another and Ellie is what I would call a challenged kitty. She has to go about every six-weeks for steroid shots. If not, her lung fill up with fluid and she can’t breathe. Her eyes tend to run, her ears need to be cleaned – all from allergies – and she has dandruff. I brush her every day and she loves it. She’s tubby, due to the steroids. It’s not her fault, but she is a girl who likes her treats. One has to face it. Ellie was born with shortish legs, especially the front ones. She can’t do high leaps. Or even medium leaps. In fact, leaping is pretty much out. She sounds awful, right? Not so. I adore her. She is my doll baby. And just the sweetest. And to me she is beautiful. This might be a lesson in not only is beauty in the eyes of the beholder, but being challenged sometimes brings out the best in other people. I think I’m  better for having Ellie in my life.     On the other hand, Yulie, my boy, is gorgeous. He’s a Flame Point Siamese. He isn’t as challenged …

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Finding the Sweet Spot of Novel Writing

The idea of writing a novel can test the mettle of the best of us. I don’t care if it’s your first or your eleventh time out (like me, right now). It can be one overwhelming, oh-m’gawd-am-I-really-doing-this? Maybe it’s the blank screen of a computer. Even if you write in long hand, it’s still the blankness of a page staring at you. Just defying  you to write something down on it. Note Matt Haig’s solution to the right. As for me, I write murder mysteries. So on that level, I’m set. Somebody’s going to die, probably more than one somebody, and it’s my job to tease the reader into thinking it can be any one of the suspects, none of the suspects, or maybe, reminiscent of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, every danged one of them. It’s all in my approach. Whether you are A) a plotter – someone who plots out every scene in every chapter ahead of time or B) a pantster – someone who flies by the seat of their pants knowing the beginning and end but not much of the middle, most of writing a novel is all in the approach. When all else fails, I try to sneak up on it, like a farmer sneaks up on a spooked heifer when he’s trying to get her backside back in the barn.  Mooo. But in all seriousness, I have learned a few tricks along the way to finding the sweet spot to writing a novel. 1 – I make a realistic schedule for writing and stick to it. When you don’t write for a living, it’s hard to carve out time for it. Most people have full-time jobs and then some. But if you realistically view what your average day is like, there are often fifteen minutes …

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