And The Winner Is

The long awards season for motion pictures ends tonight with the distribution of the prestigious Academy Awards. Today I’ve been wondering this: If Oscars were handed out to mystery books and characters, who would take home a golden statue? Here are my picks from both classic and modern mysteries.

Best Supporting Actress: Serena “Renie” Jones (Mary Daheim’s Bed-and-Breakfast Mysteries)

Renie, cousin of series’ star Judith McMonigle Flynn, is an offbeat, often grumpy graphic designer who has been Judith’s sidekick their whole lives. She’s always there to support (sometimes begrudgingly) her cousin whenever Judith discovers a corpse and sets off on a new sleuthing adventure. Like so many supporting players, Renie brings comic relief to both Judith and readers.

Best Supporting Actor: Dr. Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries)

Every year an actor has a lock on his or her category. Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s friend, sometime roommate, biographer, and crime-solving partner is as sure a thing as you can get. The original sidekick, the character has inspired too many characters to count.

Best Actress: Cora Felton (Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Mysteries)

Miss Marple she’s not. The incorrigible smoker, drinker, many-times-divorced Cora would probably scandalize her prim and proper British sleuth counterpart (or maybe Miss Marple would get a kick out of the crime-solving cruciverbalist on this side of the pond). Cora is a constant irritant to everyone in her life, but underneath her well-worn, black “Wicked Witch of the West” dress beats a heart that cares more than Cora will ever admit.

Best Actor: Hercule Poirot (multiple Agatha Christie masterpieces)

Whether the crime scene is a train, ship, hotel, country estate, or English village, the fussy Belgian detective with the high-maintenance mustache never fails to solve the mystery of the moment. With his razor-sharp intellect and keen interrogation skills, Monsieur Poirot dazzles with his ability to parse clues in time to catch a killer.

Best Director: Agatha Christie

Who else but the best-selling author of all time? Every one of her books is a master class for mystery writers and a pleasure from the first page to the last for readers. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to SideDeath on the Nile. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Pick one, any one, grab a cup of tea, and sit back and enjoy.

Best Motion Picture: Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

With so many fantastic mysteries to choose from, I’m selecting the one I first encountered in a movie theater in 1974 and then re-discovered years later when I read the brilliant novel on which the film was based. A tight plot, intriguing characters, claustrophobic setting, and best actor winner Hercule Poirot take the reader on a spellbinding trip to a stunning conclusion. A new adaptation, directed by Kenneth Branagh who will also star as Poirot, is due in theaters this November. I wouldn’t be surprised if it picks up an Oscar or two at next year’s ceremony.

Enjoy the Oscars. And have a great week, everyone!

 

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Check Your Facts, Ma’am

A mystery writer must be sure of all the facts of her story. Not only must she be attentive to the elements of the plot—timeline of the murder, alibis, physical traits of the characters—but every piece of information included in her manuscript must be checked for accuracy.

And I do mean every bit of information. I learned this during the second round of edits for Murder, by George. There was a line in the manuscript about azalea bushes planted over pachysandra. In the margin beside the passage Five Star editor Tracey Matthews placed this comment: Technically, the bushes would be planted IN the bed of pachysandra. With a couple of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks, the azaleas were properly planted.

I told this story when I met with my local library’s mystery reading group in September. That prompted one of the women to mention a moment in All Things Murder, when Veronica is shucking corn. I wrote that she was peeling a stalk. “Wouldn’t it be an ear of corn?” the woman asked. There was a minute’s discussion on corn husks, cobs, and silk before the conversation moved to another topic. The woman was correct; I should have written Veronica was shucking an ear of corn and not the whole stem, which would have been removed before Veronica laid her hands on it at the farmstand. Why I wrote “stalk” I do not know; it must have been in my head for a long time and I thought it was the right description. I was wrong and learned the lesson that fact-checking extends to everything, even information of which I’m certain.

Sometimes my research leads to conflicting information. When I wanted to describe a character as doe-eyed, I thought I should verify my understanding of doe-eyes. It was confirmed: innocent and wide-eyed. However, on a couple of other websites I read the doe-eyed look is usually reserved for people with brown eyes. Really? So anyone can be green-eyed with envy, but only those folks with the most common iris color can be doe-eyed? I ended up ditching the doe-eyed description in protest of the unfairness of it all.

I’ve learned I must also check the facts in the quips and jokes I sprinkle in a manuscript. When I asked my friend Charles to read my latest work, he went above and beyond the call of duty and checked several details in the manuscript. Or I should say proofed. In one passage, Veronica gripes she is going to need a stronger alcoholic beverage than her usual Seven and Seven after meeting with two characters. I didn’t check the proof of her new drink because I thought I was certain it was more potent (based on my observations at family gatherings) than her usual mixed beverage. Charles calculated the proof on both drinks and gave me a thumbs up. Thank you, Charles!

I could go on about ad hominems, evergreen trees, and profit versus revenue, but I’ve taken up enough of your day. I’ll just leave you with this: when you’re not in doubt, check the facts anyway.

Have a great week!

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Kicking Bad Writing Habits To The Curb

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s resolution time, when many of us commit to eating healthier foods, getting eight hours sleep, cleaning the closets, and watching less television.

I haven’t yet made a life-improving resolution for the year. What’s been on my mind these last few weeks are the bad habits I and many writers develop that, if left uncorrected, will result in manuscripts loaded with words and expressions that do nothing to advance or enhance the plot. They slow the story and make reading the work a chore rather than a pleasure.

Here are a few habits I’m mindful to avoid when I’m working on a Veronica Walsh mystery.

A Big As Problem

Type “Writer’s Overused Words” in Google and the search engine will provide links for the four, eight, ten, or thirty (pick a number, any number) words most abused by writers. You will also find articles offering plenty of advice on how to strengthen your writing if you just stop using “just.”

A word I have been guilty of using too much is “as.” It took me a while to realize I overused this two-letter word that can be used as (there it is again) an adverb, conjunction, and preposition. “She said as. . .” “As I walked . . .” “As if . . .” “It was as good as . . .” It’s so easy to load up a manuscript with the vocabulary equivalent of diet soda. All filler, no substance.

Along with “as,” “that,” “just,” “really,” and “very” are words that will boost word count but glut a manuscript.

Just say no to them in a really loud voice.

Giving Adverbs the Heave Ho

Adverbs are another class of overused words and, according to every article I’ve read on writing no-no’s, the scourge of manuscripts everywhere. The bane of every editor’s existence.

So why were adverbs invented if we can’t use them to describe how a line of dialog is said, or how the heroine ran up the street? Who knows, but “She sprinted down Broadway” and “He screeched in my ear” are more effective than “She ran quickly” and “He said loudly.” Don’t you agree?

I’ve divorced the adverb from my writing life, though we see each other from time to time. Casually, of course.

Too Much Description Can Be a Bad Thing

Writers use descriptive language to bring characters to life, plop readers in the middle of a setting, and put objects integral to the plot in the readers’ hands. Description deftly applied will leave readers salivating over the plate of lasagna a character feasts on, longing for a visit to a fictional country estate (despite the murder that takes place there), and twitching their noses for a scent of the femme fatale’s enticing perfume.

A little bit of description goes a long way, though, doesn’t it? I think it’s good to leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Draw the sketch and let us color between the lines, right? Let’s take, for example, a dinner party at the aforementioned country estate. It’s important to give readers a mental picture of the gathering, but we don’t need a head-to-toe physical description of all fifteen characters in the room, the minute details of every item on the mantel, and what type of booze is in every glass. Talk about information overload!

Writers sometimes use description to increase word count, but too much will stop the flow of the narrative and lead readers to skipping the paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of the writer’s meticulous reporting.

Eyes All Over the Place

“And please be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.”

Thanks to that remark by editor Deni Dietz (the fabulous lady who opened the door to Five Star Publishing for me), my characters glance, stare, and gaze at each other and their surroundings. Their eyes never lock, fall, or, yes, drop, on any person, place, or thing. I smile and think of Deni whenever I encounter hyperactive eyeballs in other writers’ work.

I wonder, though, if I could occasionally write, “Her eyes popped out of her head” or “His eyes fell on the alligator-skin boots the woman wore” without causing irreparable damage to a character’s body. Maybe at the end of a scene, when everyone’s stopped moving around and the eyeballs can be retrieved and replaced in the proper sockets?

Here’s to a great 2017 for us all. And for today I wish you a good Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Warm Wishes To You

I wish you a Happy Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas! Enjoy every moment with family and friends, with festive days filled with joy, peace, and love. May your spirits be light and your hopes bright for the coming New Year.

 

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Does this post’s title have you humming the Christmas song of the same name, or covering year’s ears, screaming “I can’t take it anymore!”? Carols and songs can do that to people, particularly those whose workplace plays holiday tunes from the open of business to its end.

I grew up listening to my dad’s collection of his era’s popular performers – Doris Day, Perry Como, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, Gene Autry – singing Christmas classics. “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Their voices became the sounds of Christmas to me and, though I like modern versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” I’d rather have Mitch Miller and the Gang, Robert Goulet, and Rosemary Clooney keeping me company during my Christmas preparation.

Here are a few of my December favorites.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Whether sung by my church choir on Christmas morning or Bing Crosby, this carol always stirs my heart. A verse or two in Latin is a bonus for this Catholic school graduate who studied the ancient language for three years.

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” – Mahalia Jackson, of course.

“The Little Drummer Boy” – No matter the rendition – The New Christy Minstrels, The Harry Simeone Chorale, or Bing Crosby and David Bowie combo with Peace on Earth” – I love the solemnity of this song. It’s quiet, rhythmic, and brings me right to the manger to adore the Holy Family.

“Toyland” – I just have to hear the opening notes of this Doris Day song and I’m back in second grade, hanging ornaments on the tree and hoping Santa Claus will bring me a Mrs. Beasley doll (he did).

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” – I’ve never heard a version I didn’t like. Judy Garland (the first to sing it, in Meet Me In St. Louis), Rosemary Clooney, Linda Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde, and Sara Hickman are just a few of the many artists who have recorded this beautiful song. Thank goodness lyricist Hugh Martin’s original lines were rejected by the Meet Me In St. Louis filmmakers: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.”

“I Believe In Father Christmas” – I fell in love with this song, written by Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield in protest of the commercialization of Christmas, when I was in college. Lake’s passing on December 7 makes the song’s lyric, “All anguish pain and sadness leave your heart and let your road be clear,” even more poignant.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” – All great sing-along songs, yes? My family might not agree when I’m the one leading the chorus.

What Christmas carols and songs do you sing, or maybe just hum, at this time of year? Or are you tired of the music already and have tuned in to talk radio until January 1?

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving Wishes

I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving! May you kick off the holiday season with a delicious feast and laughter and fun with family and friends (just don’t talk politics).

I’m grateful to all of you who follow this blog and my Facebook page. Thank you to those who joined my patch of cyberspace this year!

To the readers of Murder, by George, a hearty thank you for going along with Veronica and friends on her latest sleuthing adventure. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A blessed holiday to all!

 

 

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A Few More Reader Questions

Since my last post, the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series and the U.S. presidential race ended in astounding fashion. Holy cow! is all I have to say about both historical events.

Today I want to share a few more questions I fielded during my recent meetings with readers of the Veronica Walsh series.

What research do you do for a book? Thanks to Google, I’m able to quickly obtain answers to questions I have on subjects such as the Adirondack region, police procedure and terminology, and what exactly happens in the body when a person is struck in the head with a cast-iron skillet or stabbed in the neck with a cheese knife.

There is a character in Murder, by George who was arrested years before the time of the story. I was very set on what her misconduct was and did quite a bit of research looking for evidence that would support the presence of her fingerprints in the police database. I didn’t find the necessary backup, but that research led to another charge I filed against the character.

I’ve also spent time seeking information on issues I won’t disclose here because they figure prominently in my current writing project!

Do you ever have writer’s block? Oh, yes. Sometimes it’s more like writer’s indecision. Do I want this character to be the murderer, or that one? I can go back and forth on motive and means. When I hit a roadblock, a walk around the neighborhood often helps. Fresh air, sunshine, and the beauty of nature are wonderful aids in clearing and calming my mind. Other times, a break from writing for a day or two helps.

At times my problem is procrastination. I can’t explain why it’s hard for me to sit down and do something I love, but sometimes it is (I’ve heard this is a common problem for writers). I recently read a book, Get It Done: From Procrastination To Creative Genius In 15 Minutes A Day by Sam Bennett, that gave me terrific inspiration and helped me out of a rut. Ms. Bennett includes easy, fun exercises to help readers get going on their creative projects and see them through to completion. Bennett suggests giving ourselves fifteen minutes a day of daydreaming, doing a repetitive activity such as baking, folding laundry, or pitching pennies to stimulate the creative part of your brain. It works; I’ve talked my way through a few plot matters while spending my daydream minutes assembling a jigsaw puzzle.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book!

Do you read reviews? Yes. Not only professional reviews – Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal and Kirkus Reviews – but also the critiques readers post on Amazon and Goodreads. I find readers’ opinions to be helpful, even the reviews that aren’t glowing. I like to know what parts of a story readers enjoy, what elements did and didn’t interest them, and their thoughts on the characters. I appreciate the time they give to reading my work and writing a review. When a criticism makes me yell “ouch!”, I remind myself that tastes differ and even classic novels and runaway bestsellers have received a share of one-star appraisals.

Do you have pets? The woman who asked the question pointed out that animals are popular characters in cozies. Dogs and cats have left their paw prints on the mystery scene, while amateur sleuths have also counted horses, birds, goats, and cows as members of their families and sometime detecting sidekicks.

My answer is no, I do not have a pet. Unless you count my imaginary dog, who doesn’t cost me one cent for food, Milk Bones, and pet insurance. And he’ll never die.

Though I don’t have a furry friend of my own, I do love animals, dogs in particular. I also enjoy the wild life that roams my backyard: squirrels, birds, chipmunks, stray cats, and deer. Yes, I feed them seed and stale bread, and last week I threw a sliced up jack o’lantern among the leaves for their munching delight. The squirrels feasted on the gourds. I bet some other creatures had their own chow down under the cover of darkness.

I never considered giving Veronica a pet; an animal character didn’t cross my mind when I was planning All Things Murder. Ideas for a new series are drifting around my brain; when I finally get the story on paper, my new protagonist will definitely have a dog. And he’ll look a lot like my imaginary canine.

Have a great week, everyone. Enjoy the finale of the beautiful fall foliage and the busy days before we have our Thanksgiving feasts.

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A Very Cozy Halloween

One of the aspects I love about cozy series is the opportunity they give readers to go through the seasons with the characters. Take a tour of your library’s mystery section and you will find books filled with murder and mayhem during Valentine’s week, Saint Patrick’s Day parties, July Fourth fireworks, Thanksgiving feasts, and Christmas festivities. Halloween, of course, lends itself well to stories with a sinister character or two.

Here are a few cozy reads that will get you in the Halloween spirit, or at least help you fall into the autumnal state of mind (pun intended).

A Roux of Revenge from Connie Archer’s Soup Lover’s Mystery series.

Halloween Hijinks, A Zoe Donovan Mystery by Kathi Daley.

A Hannah Swensen Mystery from Joanne Fluke, Fudge Cupcake Murder.

Here are two from Mary Daheim’s Bed-and-Breakfast series (one of my favorite authors and series): Silver Scream and  the Oktoberfest-themed The Wurst is Yet to Come.

Leslie Meier’s long-running Lucy Stone series offers three Halloween installments: Trick or Treat Murder, Wicked Witch Murder,  and Candy Corn Murder.

Livia J. Washburn offers up Murder by the Slice and Trick or Deadly Treat in her Fresh Baked series.

There’s also my Murder, by George, which is set in October and includes a wild and wicked costume ball, where a few secrets are revealed.

Have a spooktacular Halloween!

 

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How Veronica and Barton Came Into Being

As I mentioned in my last post, during my library visits I was asked how I came to choose a soap opera actress as the protagonist of my cozy series and why I placed her hometown in the Adirondacks.

I grew up watching soaps All My Children and General Hospital. I got hooked on Days of Our Lives  in college and post-school drifted over to One Life to Live. I became a sporadic viewer, but kept an eye on the goings on in the soap industry (the soap magazines at the supermarket checkout were great sources of information). I liked to know the comings and goings of the actors I watched as a kid and what was going on with their characters.

The soap world underwent a great upheaval around the time I was developing what became All Things Murder. Ratings declined, causing the cancellation of several shows and the firing of actors from other soaps due to budget cuts. By 2011, only four soap operas remained on air. I wondered what all the actors who lost their roles (some had played their parts for decades) would do. There certainly wasn’t room for all of them on the surviving soaps and very few, like Susan Lucci, made the move to prime time television.

I realized it would be fun to write about a soap actress turned amateur sleuth, and I thought having this character return to her hometown after losing her longtime role would be an interesting introduction to my cozy series.

This is how Veronica Walsh came into being. Equally important to having an engaging protagonist is the setting in which she is placed. The cozy hometown needs to be a place readers will want to visit again and again, just as viewers love to return to the soap opera towns of Port Charles, Pine Valley, and Genoa City.

A real place of escape inspired the setting for Veronica’s hometown of Barton. Many of my childhood summer vacations were spent at Lake George in New York’s gorgeous Adirondack mountains. I have many wonderful memories of the time my family has spent in Lake George, so when it came to choosing a place for Veronica to live, it was a no-brainer to plunk her fictional, idyllic village of Barton in the Adirondack neighborhood. Veronica’s already paid a visit to the real Lake George; in Murder, by George she and her friend take a memorable evening drive past the lake.

When I visited the Investigating Mysteries group at the New City Library, I was asked if I considered basing the series in my hometown. I didn’t (sorry – perhaps in the future!), in part because I enjoyed creating a whole village out of my imagination. Also, for All Things Murder plot purposes, Barton needed to be a distance from where Veronica’s career is based (the Adirondacks are a three-hour drive from New York City). Barton is Veronica’s place of escape and respite, a place to consider her future and recover her spirit after her own soap world collapses.

My hope is that readers will fall in love with both character and setting and continue to come back for more adventures in the Veronica Walsh mystery series!

Have a terrific week!

 

 

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Wednesday Event Cancelled

This is a short post to let you know that Wednesday’s reading at the Sloatsburg Public Library has been cancelled. If a visit is scheduled in the future, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Have a great week!

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