Reading the paper and other things by Triss Stein

JPGphoto SteinTriss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in New York the city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn neighborhoods in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. The third, Brooklyn Secrets, will be out from Poisoned Pen Press on December 1, 2015. In it, Erica find herself immersed in the old and new stories of tough Brownsville, and the choices its young people make.

 

 

There is a public relations question in this post, but I am starting with the New York Times arriving on my steep front steps every morning.  I still like to spread the real paper out and read it over breakfast. On November 1 I was greeted with a substantial article on the reinvention of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 

Why should I care, you may ask? Because my work-in-progress Brooklyn mystery is about that very subject.  I am writing a mystery series about Brooklyn’s diverse and changing neighborhoods and they include some history, too. The Navy Yard has a fascinating back story, and a current story of decay and renewal. There are lots of ways to set crime stories, and human stories, old and new, against that background. So there I am, about one third in, and there it is in the news.

 

This has happens to me a lot, sometimes just after the book comes out. In the first in the series, Brooklyn Bones, a not-so-old body is found behind a wall in a very old house. A few months after it was released, my inbox was flooded by friends sending me the same news item:  the body of a long-missing woman was found walled up in a cellar, in her husband’s home, after he died. The law officers always thought he killed her, but could never prove it. And he got away with it.

 

The second book, Brooklyn Graves, is partly about a forgotten and hidden Tiffany window. Sure enough, not long after the book came out, a lost Tiffany window was found walled up in closet in a historic Brooklyn high school.

 

On December 1, the new book, Brooklyn Secrets, launches, and it is about a neighborhood called Brownsville, definitely not part of hip, happening Brooklyn Secrets Coverchic Brooklyn (Even in Paris, they say it’s chic these days)  It is one of the lowest income, highest crime districts in the city. And I worked there for a while, a lifetime ago, and never forgot it. And it has an interesting history of organized crime activity, back in the day. Is it obvious where I am going? There was at least a story a week about Brownsville struggles this month alone.

 

It is always fun to send these articles to my editors –the Brownsville ones more heartbreaking than fun – as support for the idea that I am writing about topics people want to read. Sometimes it’s a little spooky, too. Am I really so connected to this time and place, I can foresee events? (Just joking. I don’t actually believe that, though I do appreciate the proof that maybe I am on to something. )

 

And here, finally, is the public relations question: how can I use these moments, these news items, these connections, to generate more attention for my books? (In a perfect world, authors would not have to think about any of this. We do not live in that world.)  I write mysteries, so my goal is storytelling, entertainment if you will, but they are all about something beyond that. The best stories always are. Memory, how the place and the past creates the present, how some things don’t change and some things should.  In Brooklyn Secrets, that would be crime and desperation and also the hopes and dreams of young people. Only the faces and the accents change.

 

Readers, have you any good ideas? Something that worked to connect your writing to the bigger picture?  Something that might work and is worth a discussion?

 

Milking Chickens by Betty Webb

betty2015.4Betty Webb is the author of the nationally best-selling Lena Jones mystery series (DESERT RAGE, DESERT WIVES, DESERT WIND, etc.) and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE KOALA OF DEATH, THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, etc.). Before beginning to write full time, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. She has taught creative writing classes and workshops at Arizona State University and Phoenix College, and has been a nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 20 years, and is currently reviewing for Mystery Scene Magazine. In addition to other organizations, Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the American Association of Zoo Keepers.

 

 

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Yesterday, while I was speaking to a Phoenix-area book club, I made an inadvertent slip when describing my chores as a kid growing up on a farm. I said, “I milked the goat and chickens…” when I meant to say, “I milked the goat and fed the chickens.”

My verbal gaffe got a big laugh, of course, but the phrase “milked the chickens” remains with me. It perfectly describes the writing life.

Every single day, we writers attempt the impossible.

The first impossible thing is in trying to create something from nothing, to build a universe from a void. The second impossible thing is in attempting to transfer the multi-colored visions in our heads to the stark black-and-white of the printed page. The third impossible thing — the most impossible, actually — is in struggling to lead a “normal” life.

In other words, we writers are constantly trying to milk chickens.

At this point in my writing life, I’ve written thirteen mystery novels. Well, twelve if you don’t want to count my one-hundred-page novella (“Desert Deceit”) as a book. Each novel started with little more than a vague idea in my head. My mean-streets Lena Jones “Desert” novels (“Desert Wives,” “Desert Rage,” etc.) were all triggered by newspaper accounts of certain human rights abuses. My cozy Gunn Zoo series (“The Koala of Death,” “The Puffin of Death,” etc.) emerged from my years of volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo.

I’ve been lucky. Not only did all those books find a publisher willing to pay me for them (!), they went on to receive glowing reviews in media like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and that publishing-world bible, Publishers Weekly. Only Kirkus continues to hate them.

Yet as lucky as I’ve been, none of these published books matched the original idea in my head. My most recent book – “The Puffin of Death” – provides an example.

When I first came up with the idea of writing a mystery centered around those bizarre-looking birds, I pictured a rocky slope in Maine being studied by a group of American zoologists, one of whom was a killer. Somewhere along the line, and for the life of me I can’t remember when and how it happened, the coast of Maine was replaced by a windswept cliff in Iceland. Since I’d never been to Iceland, I decided that a trip there was necessary. So I went.

A month later, I was back home and writing a totally different book than the one I’d originally planned. Gone was my original killer, gone were my original suspects, gone was my original victim. The only thing that remained the same was the puffin, but even she was eclipsed by the antics of an orphaned polar bear cub named Magnus.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because change can be good.

Like many writers, I construct an outline before beginning to write, and “The Puffin of Death” was no different. I plotted out the action chapter by chapter, making certain I alternated indoor scenes with outdoor scenes so my readers wouldn’t suffer from claustrophobia. I provided method, means, and motive for my wannabe-murderer, and made certain that my about-to-be victim had done something awful enough to get what was coming to him.

This outline was awesome. Rational, detailed, with none of those pesky plot holes that so annoy readers.PuffinofDeath

But three chapters into the outlined version of “The Puffin of Death,” I junked it.

The book had become its own thing. “Puffin” refused to be dictated to and wrote its own pages, ignoring my every attempt to rein it in and make it conform. The murderer refused to do the deed, and someone else stepped forward. The puffin, instead being a cute, cuddly little bird, developed a mean streak. And Iceland? Instead of the frozen north I’d envisioned, it became a lush August paradise where shaggy Icelandic horses pastured on the slopes of active volcanoes.

Because I was writing by the seat of my pants – as they say in the trade – I wound up writing a book I hadn’t intended to write, a book that had nothing to do with the outline I’d so laboriously put together. In short, I failed. But guess what? That “failure” turned out to be much better than the book I’d planned, and judging from what the critics have been saying about it, they agree.

Have I learned anything from this?

Sure. I’ve learned that no matter how hard you try, you can’t milk a chicken, so don’t even try. Instead, bypass that stuffy chicken coop and head for the open, green pasture. The view’s better out there.

 

CAT MUMMIES AND FLYING LORD CHAMBERLAINS by Mary Reed

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer co-author the John, Lord Chamberlain, historical mystery series set in 6th century Byzantium. The eleventh, Murder In Megara, was published in October 2015 by Poisoned Pen Press. The Guardian Stones,  a World War Two mystery set in rural Shropshire, will appear under the pen name Eric Reed in January 2016 from the same publisher.

LINKS

Blogs
http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/author/mreed/
http://ericreedmysteries.blogspot.com

Twitter
Mary  @marymaywrite
Eric @groggytales

Murder In Megara links

Poisoned Pen Press
http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/murder-megara/

Amazon
http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Megara-Chamberlain-Mystery-Mysteries/dp/1464204063

Barnes & Noble
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/murder-in-megara-eric-mayer/1121236082?ean=9781464204081&itm=1&usri=9781464204081

 

CAT MUMMIES AND FLYING LORD CHAMBERLAINS

Writers of historical mystery fiction are occasionally handicapped by not being sure whether certain matters could take place in any given time period.

Some eras are relatively easy to research but others, well, not so much. Our time-tested method for overcoming such difficulties?

Note what is known and extrapolate from the information in a fashion that will not break the laws of the universe. In this way writers are able to describe scenes that sound unlikely but are not when the
mandatory explanations are offered.

The writer has often to plough some fairly far-off fields to obtain needed information but we have found it will often pop up in casual reading rather than deep research, thus underlining the need for writers to find time to read as much as possible.

So, escorting you behind the scenes to provide examples from our work, we might mention spontaneous combustions occurred and the sea caught fire in Two For Joy. How these feats were accomplished involved looking into accounts of early miracles and investigation of certain natural phenomena.

In Three For A Letter the automatons — including musicians, an archer, and the mechanical whale played an important part in the plot – were based upon the writings of Heron of Alexandria, to which we added
something of our own, while our protagonist Lord Chamberlain John’s brief flight from atop a Constantinople tower as related in Four For A Boy became possible by combining information obtained from perusal of
accounts of failed Victorian suicides and an historical record of a 17th century flight in the city.

Occasionally information comes to hand long after publication supporting what appears at first blush to be the over-inventive imagination of certain writers of mysteries not a hundred miles from this blog.

Cat mummies spring to mind.

In Six For Gold we sent John to Egypt, accompanied by Cornelia and John’s servant Peter, to look into the matter of sheep committing suicide. While the trio are in Alexandria Peter meets Pedibastet, purveyor of cat mummies. They are certainly mummies but not as ancient as presented, for Pedibastet manufactures and sells them to unwary visitors as genuinely ancient artefacts.

A forger of mummies, we thought, and why not? Visitors to Egypt think of pyramids and mummies. Greed knows no bounds and such souvenirs would be easy enough to accomplish — the reader can tell from their description these are not the highest grade of mummy — so although the notion pained us no end, to keep his expenses down we arranged for Pedibastet to breed or steal his basic material. It would be just the sort of thing
this type of seedy character would do — and so he did.

Even so, one of Pedibastet’s creations plays a part in assisting John and his companions to put on a somewhat scurrilous street performance in Alexandria. This unlikely event was necessary because, Peter having been
robbed, the party needs funds to pay for their passage up the Nile in connection with John’s investigation.

At least there were cats in Pedibastet’s mummies, unlike some mentioned in a BBC report this past summer.

A team investigating the contents of animal mummies via the use of an x-ray machine and CT scanner discovered some mummies contained only partial remains or none at all. Experts were divided on why this should be so: were they made for sale to pilgrims and there was more profit to be made in such spurious artefacts or was it believed even a part of an animal was considered as sacred as the whole?Murder in Megara

Cheops, as Cornelia dubbed the cat mummy, returned to Constantinople with the travelers and currently resides in John and Cornelia’s bedroom.
Evidence for his presence there occurs in an early chapter in Murder In Megara, latest entry in the series to published by Poisoned Pen Press in October.