Ripped From The Headlines (Sort Of)

“Where do you get your ideas?”

This is the most common question writers are asked. A dream inspired Stephenie Meyer to write the blockbuster Twilight. Suzanne Collins developed what became The Hunger Games when, during an evening of channel surfing, images from a reality show featuring young adults and a news story about the Iraq War began to “fuse together in a very unsettling way.” Many writers glean ideas from their childhood experiences, the wonderful past time of people watching, or situations that arise at their day jobs.

I often find the seeds for mystery plots in news stories. Not the reports of murder or other violent acts. I like to hear what’s going on in communities: residential neighborhoods, the Town Hall, schools, Main Street businesses. What are people fighting for, struggling with, or protesting? What is tearing a town apart or pulling it together? When a topic covered in the news sparks my interest, I play around with it to see if I can use it to launch a plot or conclude a story.

Newspapers and television news shows often report on communities fighting the construction of malls, new homes, or office buildings, arguing the development will pose risks to the environment, ruin the peace and safety of residents, or drown the town in debt. A few years ago, I developed an idea of a village of a few thousand residents and a thriving main street of “mom and pop” businesses confronted with the potential of an unwanted new neighbor: a shopping center filled with big-name stores. After a few false starts, I settled on a plot that became All Things Murder, in which soap opera actress Veronica Walsh discovers the body of her next door neighbor Anna Langdon the morning after Anna thwarted the mall developer’s plan to build in Veronica’s hometown of Barton.

Did you hear the story about the man who paid four dollars for an ugly painting he saw at a flea market because he liked its frame and later found a first printing of the Declaration of Independence tucked behind the painting? This and other tales of valuable flea market/yard sale/thrift store items purchased for mere dollars inspired my first cozy mystery (the story didn’t include a murder), which I wrote in 2005. The plot involved a letter purportedly written by George Washington found in a framed painting that is purchased at a tag sale.

That book was never published, but the idea of an amazing thrift sale find continued to intrigue me. Ten years after writing the original story, I re-worked the premise to come up with the second Veronica Walsh Mystery, Murder, by George. The George Washington letter became a small painting hidden in an antique box; the painting is discovered just minutes after the box is purchased at a village flea market. I added murder to the story: The painting’s new owner is murdered days after his momentous find.

These are two examples of how I used news stories to set a plot in motion. Sometimes, a real-life event presents the perfect motive for a murder and I’ll reveal it at the end of a story. I did this with Cast for Murder, the third cozy featuring Veronica Walsh. I had long wanted to involve Veronica in her community theater, but couldn’t figure out why her director is murdered. When I finally had an idea for a motive, I relied on several news articles to make sure my idea was logical and that I presented the facts in my story correctly.

Not every idea I get from a news report or article is viable. Many are just fleeting sparks in my imagination while others are discarded after I’ve noodled over them for a while. No worries. The news is fresh every day, so there’s always plenty of potential for inspiration, even when the story is fake. The dissemination of phony information—now there’s a motive for murder. Hmmm . . .

Have a fantastic week!

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! May 2019 be a fantastic year for us all. Much happiness, excellent health, wonderful times with family and friends, and plenty of good books to read!

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you all! I hope each of you has a wonderful day with family and friends and that you carry the spirit of Christmas in your heart throughout the coming year.

 

 

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Oh, Panettone

It’s the time of year when not only do we pull out our Christmas decorations from the attic, closet, or basement shelves, but also memories of Christmases past emerge from the corners of our minds to keep us company while we trim the tree, bake the cookies, and wrap the gifts. Sometimes we drag the remembrances out ourselves, other times a prompt such as the scent of an evergreen garland, the taste of gingerbread, or the jingle of a favorite holiday tune will bring a memory to the forefront. Something that always brings on a flood of memories for me: a box of panettone bread.

Yes, panettone. Marcel Proust had his madeleine, I have the panettone. The yellow or blue boxes containing this Italian sweet bread are like a time machine for me. The moment I see stacks of these boxes in the supermarket in late November, my mind takes me back to my 1970s childhood and my father, who worked for a textile company founded by an Italian immigrant. Every Christmas, Mr. Gerli would give each of his employees a box of panettone (plus that other kind of bread, the Christmas Bonus). Dad would come home, set his fedora on the front hall table, and place the box of panettone on top of the refrigerator. When I saw Dad come through the door with that box in his hand, I knew for certain Christmas was fast approaching.

Panettone + Dad’s Stetson fedora = Great Christmas memories

At the sight of panettone on sale in the supermarket, I instantly remember the years we had our own box on top of the fridge and think of those wonderful holiday seasons. Eating the candy cane cookies my grandmother baked. Listening to Dad’s Reader’s Digest four-album collection of Christmas songs and carols. Going to Mass on Christmas Eve and then home to a supper of spaghetti and meatballs. We’re not Italian; it was a meal my mother could prepare beforehand so all she had to do when we got home was boil water for the pasta and heat up the sauce and meatballs. After dinner, we’d wrap the presents my bachelor uncle bought. He’d hold a package behind his back, walk sideways past the person for whom he had purchased the gift, and hand it off to someone for wrapping. It was a big production and there’d always be a lot of laughter mixed in with the sound of scissors cutting paper and tape being torn against the sharp edge of the dispenser. We were filled with the anticipation of Christmas Day, warm from the delicious meal, and a little amped up from the candy cane cookies.

Great memories all brought on by a display in the ice cream aisle at Shop Rite. Who knew panettone had such power?

What brings back Christmas memories for you? Is it a magical box of panettone, or perhaps a mesh bag stuffed with clementines?

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Many Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

I have much to be thankful for this year. I’ve written about my move to a new home this summer. I did it with a lot of help from my realtor, Kevin; Don, my lawyer; and Craig, Lee, and Mason, who moved my furniture and numerous boxes down a flight of stairs and up another long flight on a hot and humid August day. I’m grateful to you all!

Thank you to my sister, Patti, and brother-in-law, Jim, who helped me cart two carloads of random stuff and who stored several boxes for me until I got settled in the new Casa Quigley.

I’m also grateful to the family and friends who prayed that I’d find a wonderful place to live. I did, just where I wanted to be.

It seems like such a long time ago that I published Cast for Murder. I’m grateful to Keri Knutson (Alchemy Book Covers and Design) for the beautiful design she created for the cover for my third cozy mystery and to editor Bethany Blair for her expert work on the manuscript. Thank you to Jill Marsal for the encouragement to go for it!

Thank you to all who read Cast for Murder. It means so much to me that you followed me into the world of self-publishing. I am grateful for your continued enthusiasm for the Veronica Walsh series.

I’m grateful to the librarians who purchased Cast for Murder for their collections. Who said libraries don’t buy self-published books?

A big thank you to the ladies who welcomed me to their cozy mystery blogs this year: Dru Ann at dru’s book musings, Lori at Escape with Dollycas, Kathy at Cozy Up with Kathy, Yvonne at Socrates’ Book Reviews, Leslie at Storeybook Reviews, Angela at A Holland Reads, Jane at Jane Reads, Christa at Christa Reads and Writes, and Katrina at The Montana Bookaholic. Thank you for helping me spread the word about Veronica’s latest sleuthing adventure.

I’m grateful to all of you who follow my blog. I appreciate your support very much. Thank you!

May you have a wonderful holiday with your family and friends. May your festivities bring you much joy!

 

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Building Inspiration

Did you all have a good Halloween? Anyone pay a visit to a “haunted” house? This particular holiday attraction has never been a part of my Halloween experience. I’ve visited just one spooked-out house, when I was in college and a neighboring men’s dorm hosted a tour. In my recollection, I laughed more than I screamed. Or was I hysterical from the fright?

Perhaps you watched Psycho for some Halloween scares. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic will see a striking similarity between the unsettling Bates Motel and the house depicted in Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad. The design of the fictional motel was influenced by the painting; Hopper’s work, in turn, was inspired by a house located just a few miles from where I live. Many “real-life” homes have found their way onto the pages of novels—check out this link for a few examples.

I’m fascinated by the various styles of houses and often read real estate listings for details to include in my stories (also for the great daydreams stirred by the beautiful photos included in the listings). The star of my series, Veronica Walsh, makes her home in a Folk Victorian. Victorian-style houses are popular in the cozy mystery genre; many characters live or work in one of these picturesque buildings. Get a stack of cozies, spread them out, and I bet ninety percent of them will feature a lovely watercolor of a Victorian on the cover. Can we say I established my cozy bona fides with the choice of my character’s domicile?

I sometimes use a house to convey a character’s, well, character. Veronica’s sweetheart, Mark Burke, lives in a stone Craftsman house. This architectural style is a favorite of mine. I think the design is unpretentious and charming, two traits that Mark possesses and which attracted Veronica to him. I’ve also “built” a Craftsman home for the main character of my current work-in-progress. What color do you think it should be?

A nineteenth-century estate, also located in my home county, inspired Leona Bradshaw Kendall’s residence in Murder, by George, the second Veronica Walsh mystery. The fictional mansion was designed by Leona’s father, a famous artist and the George of the title. The real house’s fantastic features—ivy-covered exterior, turrets, a grand piano in the entrance foyer—provided wonderful details for the Bradshaw family’s home.

Have you ever seen a house in a real estate listing or on a drive through a neighborhood and thought it would be a fabulous setting for a book or movie? Do you make up stories about the lives of the characters who would live there, or just daydream about yourself living in the picture-perfect residence?

Happy November!

 

 

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So Many Books . . .

Have you ever roamed a library, unable to find a book you wanted to read? Thousands of books and not one that appealed to you? It sounds odd, but that’s what happened to me Saturday morning when I visited my home library. So many books and I couldn’t pick one!

I didn’t go home empty-handed, however. I stepped into an aisle in the mystery section, closed my eyes, and pulled a book off the shelf. I read the description on the inside flap and … wasn’t inclined to check it out. I went around the corner, closed my eyes again, selected a paperback, and discovered Death Takes Priority (A Postmistress Mystery), by Jean Flowers. With such a beautiful first name (I know, it’s a pseudonym for author Camille Minichino), how can the book not be a winner? The cozy’s premise is intriguing: postmistress Cassie Miller returns home to the Berkshires, becomes the town’s postmaster, and soon has a murder and the mystery of a stolen stack of telephone books to solve. I’m eager to start this first book in the series.

I also went home with Anne Tyler’s latest, Clock Dance. I’ve mentioned before that Tyler is one of my favorite authors. She won me over with Saint Maybe and made me a loyal reader with beautiful work such as Breathing Lessons, Back When We Were Grownups, and Digging to America. I started reading the book Saturday night and was immediately drawn into main character Willa Drake’s world. The jacket promises the book is “an inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey.” I expect nothing less from the masterful Tyler.

I won’t have trouble finding reading material at the library in the coming autumn weeks. Ellen Byron’s fourth Cajun Country Mystery, Mardi Gras Murder, was released last week. I love this Louisiana-set series featuring Maggie Crozat and a delightful cast of characters. Byron weaves colorful local details and regional history into her stories, making Pelican a town I want to visit again and again.

In Want of a Knife by Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli, is the third installment of her Little Library Mystery series. The tone of this series is more serious than typical cozies and the characters, led by main protagonist Jenny Weston, are more unique than quirky. They’re very well-drawn and have interesting depth, particularly Zoe Zola, Jenny’s neighbor and sleuthing partner. Buzzelli’s first two Little Library mysteries, A Most Curious Murder and She Stopped for Death, were inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Emily Dickinson, respectively. In her latest, she takes the lead from Jane Austen and writes about mothers, daughters, and rich husbands. This should be good!

I recently read this post on Margot Kinberg’s blog. I often think about how quickly Veronica Walsh should age in my series. It’s not a question of if Veronica grows older with each mystery she investigates. Veronica’s age (53) is an important element in the series’ debut (All Things Murder) and that she was middle-aged and not in her twenties or early thirties was appreciated by many readers. It would be a betrayal—of the character, my readers, and one of the inspirations for the series—if Veronica doesn’t age gracefully.

Leslie Meier’s characters also age with the passage of time in her wonderful Lucy Stone Mysteries. Through this long-running series, readers have watched Lucy progress from a young mother of four (her youngest arrives early in the series) to a grandmother. Though she gets older, Lucy’s character remains true and strong. This is the delight of reading a new offering from Meier: the family has grown (in age or size), but we always know Lucy will be the same “old” Lucy. This is a roundabout way of saying I’m looking forward to reading the twenty-fifth installment of Meier’s series in the aptly-titled Silver Anniversary Murder, which was released late last month.

What’s on your reading list this fall? What books are you looking forward to reading after you’ve raked the leaves, carved the Halloween pumpkin, and picked enough apples for your Thanksgiving pie?

 

 

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Big Magic For Writer’s Block

I’m always interested in advice on how to improve my writing and support my cozy mystery career. Through a subscription to Hiveword, I have access to over 40,000 articles on their Writer’s Knowledge Database. Name a topic of interest to authors and you’ll find it in the database: writer’s block, punctuation, grammar, how to create three-dimensional characters, how to write the perfect first and last sentences of your novel. Elizabeth Spann Craig curates the database and also tweets links to articles daily. Every Sunday she posts all the links on her blog. I receive an email from Hiveword every morning with links to a few new articles; with a free subscription you can, too. If you are interested in writing and publishing in general and cozy writing in particular, you’ll learn much from becoming a regular at Elizabeth’s blog.

I admit, however, the content becomes redundant after reading several articles on how to overcome procrastination or breakdown the wall of writer’s block. Whether it’s advice to set your kitchen timer for several minutes and write (fifteen minutes is often recommended), outline your story, turn off your internet access, change your writing style from typing to longhand, or take a walk (or a hike), I find the same nuggets in many blog posts. Not that the recommendations aren’t useful, they sometimes just don’t provide a spark of inspiration.

I’ve recently read two books that got me jazzed about writing and gave me that push I needed to finish my current project. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray LoveCommitted: A Love Story, and several novels) is a wonderful mix of personal stories of her writing life and practical advice to leading your own creative life. Her message: you have to do the work. There’s no way around it. It’s hard, it can be heartbreaking and disappointing, but you have to keep at it. Gilbert offers encouragement in every chapter.

In a chapter titled “Enchantment,” Gilbert gives her philosophy on ideas: they are “both magical and magic,” and are always “swirling around us, searching for available and human partners.” As evidence that ideas move from one person to another, without their knowledge, Gilbert tells readers the story of an idea she had for a novel. It had a unique plot which Gilbert developed and started to write until her real life got in the way. She never finished the book. The idea was gone. Some time later, during breakfast with author Ann Patchett, Gilbert discovered Patchett was writing a novel with a plot very similar to the one Gilbert had abandoned. Or had the idea abandoned Gilbert? Up and left her for Patchett’s pen? Big Magic, Gilbert calls it. A book well worth your time, I say.

Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block:Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance also inspired me to buckle down and do my writing thing. Bane’s thesis is that writer’s block isn’t caused by laziness, procrastination, or a lack of will power. It’s all in the head. It’s the brain’s fault! Bane walks us through the neurological process of what’s going on in our brains that keeps writers (her thesis can also apply to procrastinators of all stripes) from doing what we love. All we have to do is re-wire our brains by forming three habits.

Bane guides the reader through the habits: Process (which isn’t developing your book idea, but engaging in another creative endeavor such as drawing, knitting, or painting), Product Time (aka writing time), and Self-Care (meditation or exercise, for example). Bane promises anyone willing to spend a daily fifteen minutes on each step will conqueror writer’s block and progress in leaps and bounds. It’s all in the neurology, folks.

Have you ever hit a wall in your creative life? How did you get through, around, or over the obstacle? Did a well-timed email direct you to a helpful article or blog post? Or was it a book you noticed on a library or bookstore shelf (I scooped up Big Magic when I spotted it on a display table at my library’s entrance- thank you to the librarian who plucked it off the shelf, knowing it was just the book someone needed to read)? Please share, because I’m always open to good advice.

Have a terrific first week of October!

 

 

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Back to Blogging

Hi!

I’ve been a terrible blogger this year. Perhaps you thought I had fallen off the face of the earth. No, I just moved. I think falling off the face of the earth would have been more fun and less stressful.

Moving into a smaller home has been a learning experience. A few months ago I wrote about clearing out and packing up everything in my mother’s house, all the possessions that had spent decades in the closets and on the shelves and which held many memories. Now I’m unpacking a lot of this stuff and having tense conversations with myself. “Why did you keep this?” I keep wondering aloud. I don’t always get an answer. The memories were so strong in my mind while packing, I didn’t see the useless object in my hands that would gather dust in my new home.

My books, which are very difficult for me to part with, are now in stacks in the closet, on the floor, and on the hallway table. Now I’m looking at every novel and work of nonfiction and saying, “Jeanne, you don’t remember the plot of this book. You can’t name one character. You don’t even recall reading it. It did not change your life. Donate it!”

I have a lot of stuff to bring to the local thrift shop.

* * *

Last week I read a book by a bestselling mystery author. It was a good story (though I identified the murderer long before the main protagonist did-I rarely do that), but I won’t tell you the title or the writer’s name because there were at least a dozen typos in the book and I would feel like a snitch. Seeing misspelled and incorrectly used words in published work annoys me, the reader, and mortifies me, the writer (I can’t describe how embarrassing it is to receive a manuscript back from an editor and see all those red marks that indicate a word or punctuation had to be fixed or added). More annoying was that a previous reader (I borrowed the book from my local library) had crossed out the typos with a pencil and written the correct word above the line. That made the errors even more glaring and the markings distracted me from the story.

Do you think it’s right for a reader to play editor and mark up a library book? Does it bother you as much as it irks me?

* * *

I promise to be a better blogger in the fourth quarter of 2018! Have a great week, everyone!

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Summer Days

Happy Sunday! First, an update. I’m still promoting Cast for Murder to libraries. If your library does not have a copy of the book, please ask them to order it. Thank you to the librarians who have added the latest Veronica Walsh mystery to their collections!

Can you believe August begins on Wednesday? There are some important dates happening this month we all need to note so we can participate fully in the festivities.

Thursday, August 2 is National Ice Cream Sandwich Day. Whether you buy them in the store or make your own (I highly recommend a sandwich composed of homemade chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream), enjoy the delicious treat. Any leftover cookies you have can be used to celebrate National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day a couple of days later, on the fourth.

August 5 is National Underwear Day. Does that mean we wear our best pair or give undies the day off?

Heads up – Book Lover’s Day is next week, on August 9. That’s us!

This one is no joke. Are you considering getting a pet? Clear the Shelters Day is August 18. If you’re able to adopt a homeless animal, stop by your local shelter and offer a forever home to a dog or cat (or another furry friend the shelter might be housing).

National Potato Day is August 19. Yeah for my favorite vegetable! So many ways to prepare them: mashed, fried, baked, roasted. All yummy.

Just Because Day falls on August 27. Oh, the possibilities. Make sure whatever you do that day, just because, is legal.

Another day with a literary bent is August 30, Frankenstein Day. We celebrate the birth of author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley on this day, not the creation of her famous monster. So don’t put on green makeup and walk around that day with stiff legs and arms outstretched, moaning and grunting, “It’s alive!”

I read about this survey yesterday. What’s your perfect day?

My favorite days are fall Saturdays, with the sun shining down on trees decorated with leaves in beautiful shades of red and gold. These days offer so much. Cool temperatures that require the wearing of jeans and a sweatshirt. Lots of sports—the baseball playoffs and one great college football game after another (Go Notre Dame (my alma mater)!). A productive chunk of time for writing and leisure time for reading. For dinner, a hamburger done on the grill and fries. The wonderful anticipation of Halloween approaching and Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner. Ahhh. These days are coming soon.

I’ll end with an interesting story I saw on the news this morning . . .

You might not have had recourse when the dog ate your homework, but if your four-legged best friend ever makes a meal of your rent money, here’s help. And you might want to check on that money you’ve buried in your backyard.

 

And something that amused me . . .

I found this plate in my mother’s china cabinet. It bears the iconic image of an important event in the American Revolutionary War: George Washington leading Continental Army soldiers across the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. What did they do when they got to the other side? Pulled off a surprise attack on British-supporting Hessian soldiers in Trenton, NJ. When I looked at the back of the plate, I discovered I was holding a piece of irony. Notice it?

 

I guess all is forgiven.

 

 

Have a terrific week. Happy dog days of summer!

 

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