Holiday Wishes To You

Happy Easter and Pesach! I wish you a beautiful, blessed holiday.

 

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Take A Cozy Tour


I think I’ve mentioned before one of the things I love about cozy mysteries is the wide range of locales in which they are set. Sit down with a cozy and you can find yourself in Botswana, the Cotswolds, or Amish country. A literary visit to a city might have you plotting your summer vacation or at least taking a jaunt via the Internet. Thanks to Google Earth, I’ve roamed the streets of Edinburgh, passed through Traverse City, Michigan, and strolled around Dublin.

In the past few weeks, my cozy reading has taken me around the country and across the “pond.” Let me take you on a tour.

In my last post, I noted I began March with Patrick Taylor’s latest, An Irish Country Love Story. His tale took me to Ballybucklebo, a fictional village in Northern Ireland. I ended March with a visit to another Irish town courtesy of Alexia Gordon’s fabulous debut Gethsemane Brown Mystery, Murder in G Major. When African-American maestra Gethsemane Brown loses a promised position in Cork, she ends up in the small village of Dunmullach teaching music in an all-boys prep school. She secures lodging in the charming cottage once owned by a composer she has long revered, Eamon McCarthy. Eamon might be dead (supposedly by his own hand), but he’s certainly not gone. He soon makes his presence known to Gethsemane and asks a small favor: prove he killed neither himself nor his wife. Gethsemane finds Eamon’s request difficult to resist, what with his skill at pouring bourbon and the rainbow of colors his aura presents, depending on his mood. A fully absorbing story with an ending sure to bring readers back for more.

In her second Little Library Mystery, author Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli takes readers back to the Midwest and Bear Falls, Michigan, home of protagonist Jenny Weston. In She Stopped for Death, Jenny must sort out a mystery involving local Emily Sutton, a poet who hasn’t been seen in years. With help from her mother, Dora, and neighbor Zoe Zola, Jenny untangles a web of murder while helping draw Emily from her self-imposed exile. This is a well-written book with a nice blend of quirk and gravity, romance and friendship. Check out the first in the series, A Most Curious Murder, for a fine introduction to Buzzelli’s world of Bear Falls.

Do you like books with a southern flavor? Then Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country Mysteries are for you. I loved the first in the series, Plantation Shudders, and eagerly dived into the second installment, Body in the Bayou. The series’ protagonist, Maggie Crozat, is a delightful southern belle who helps her parents run the bed-and-breakfast in their converted plantation house and gives tours at another former plantation, all while also romancing a local cop. Thanks to Byron’s deft writing, readers can practically smell the barbecue and hear the characters’ drawls. Colorful characters on both sides of the law fill the pages and promise to entertain those who seek an escape to the bayou.

This is just a taste of where I’ve been without leaving my comfortable couch. This year I’ve also spent time in Lake Eden, Minnesota (Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen Mystery Banana Cream Pie Murder), made repeat trips to Tinker’s Cove, Maine (Leslie Meier’s Lucy Stone Mysteries), and stopped by Stoneham, New Hampshire (A Fatal Chapter by Lorna Barrett).

In the coming weeks, I’m going back to Wales for another visit with Penny Brannigan (Elizabeth J. Duncan’s Murder is for Keeps), will catch up with the residents of Maine’s Cranberry Island in Karen MacInerney’s Whale of a Crime, hit Dewberry Farm in Texas in MacInerney’s Fatal Frost, and check out what’s cooking in the Berkshires in Linda Reilly’s A Frying Shame.

What are your favorite places to visit in your reading? Please share! I’m always looking for books that will take me to new settings, whether real or fictional.

Have a great week. Spring is finally here!

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All Things Irish

Every March, I celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with a trip to the Emerald Isle of Ireland. A literary, not physical (though maybe someday . . .) trip, that is. In recent years, my “journey” has included a week’s stop in the small Northern Ireland village of Ballybucklebo for a visit with Doctor Fingal O’Reilly and his delightful friends. I’m back from this year’s jaunt and am happy to report O’Reilly and his village are as charming as ever.

I write, of course, of Patrick Taylor’s fantastic An Irish Country series. I’ve been a reader of the Bangor(Northern Ireland)-born Taylor’s tales of Fingal and the Ballybucklebo denizens since book one. The latest, An Irish Country Love Story, is another winner filled with wit, sweetness, and a bit of blarney.

Want more stories set in Ireland to fill your month? Here you go . . .

Irishman James Joyce wrote several of the twentieth century’s best books (and its most challenging), including the masterpiece Ulysses. You may have read his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school or been confounded by Finnegans Wake. If you’d like a taste of Joyce’s work this March 17, read Dubliners. The short story collection portrays Irish life in the early 1900’s and comprises the best writing I have ever read.

The late Maeve Binchy celebrated the everyday lives of the Irish in more than two dozen novels, short stories, and novellas. She captured the spirit, heartbreak, struggles, and faith of the Irish in her work, including A Circle of FriendsScarlet Feather, and Evening Class. Though two of Binchy’s novels have been published posthumously, Binchy’s legion of fans still mourn her 2012 passing at age 72.

Cecelia Ahern writes terrific novels of life in contemporary Ireland. She has followed up her 2004 best-selling debut, PS, I Love, with more than a dozen books, including Where Rainbows End (if you live in the USA, you might have read this under the titles Rosie Dunne or Love, Rosie), The Gift, and How to Fall in Love.

If you’re looking for a cozy with a Gaelic (not garlic) flavor, look no further than Irish-American Sheila Connolly’s County Cork Mysteries.  The series features an American expatriate solving murders in the small town where her grandmother was born. I get lost in the pages of these mysteries, imagining traveling the winding roads of Irish villages, discovering my family’s roots, and  stopping at a pub (and I’m a teetotaler!) for a bit of craic (pronounced “crack,” it means fun). Check out Connolly’s fifth County Cork mystery, Cruel Winter, which arrived in stores this month.

Chances are you’ve already read Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, which was published in 1996. More than a few have called McCourt’s account of his impoverished childhood in Limerick depressing, but what I remember from my reading of the book is the humor and grace with which McCourt relates his early years in Ireland. I also recommend his memoirs of life in New York: ‘Tis and Teacher Man.

There are plenty more Irish writers to celebrate. Check out the work of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Frank Delaney, Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien, Joseph O’Connor, Roddy Doyle, Lucy Caldwell, Lisa McInerney, Claire Keegan, and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. To name just a few!

Have a great week, everyone, and happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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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 (Yes, I know some of my selections have already been portrayed on big and small screens. Just play along with me).

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 good doctor 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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