I’ve spent most of my career as a newspaper editor, and over the years I’ve developed an attitude that I’ve tried to convey to my colleagues — particularly my younger ones, who have yet to develop a sense of perspective:
I’ve just read a new blog post here by Betty Webb, acclaimed fellow Poisoned Pen Press author, who wrote something personal she has never told before.
It’s a fascinating story that relates to the books Betty writes, but I thought, oh, dear, I have nothing that dramatic to tell today, or ever.
In fact, I am in limbo. My next mystery novel, Brooklyn Legacies, is complete, in the hands of the publisher but not out until December. I have no cover yet, or pr material or any ARC’s to offer as a gift. It is too soon to pre-order. The (next) next one, after that, is just a gleam in the author’s eyes, a fun first chapter and some scrawled pages of notes. And It’s been awhile since the last one, Brooklyn Wars. Life got in the way, and the Legacies story itself took some wrestling to get into shape. Maybe I can just tell a little about where the December book came from.
All of my books are about different Brooklyn neighborhoods. My protagonist is an urban historian who researches and writes about changing Brooklyn. That gives me a good excuse to have her stumble upon old and new mysteries and questions no one wants answered. After writing four, I realized I had overlooked Brooklyn Heights even though I actually lived when I was just getting to know New York. That’s surprising, because it is a natural for my kind of book, with a rich history and both old and current conflicts. (Conflict is where we find plots) It was New York ’s first suburb and first official historic district. It is both dramatically beautiful and charmingly quaint. When I lived there, in an attic at the top of a townhouse, I had a sliver of a view of Brooklyn Bridge, a witchcraft shop down the street in one direction and Truman Capote’s old home in the other. There was a Jehovah’s Witness dorm across the street. How had I overlooked this as a setting?
But my attic apartment was a whole lifetime ago. What did I remember? And was any of it accurate, anyway? I went over there for a few note-taking walks. I did some extensive library research, catching up on politics I ignored when young and on what has happened since. I interviewed someone who was deeply involved in the epic civic battles between preservationists, real state developers and city planners. The famous and scary Robert Moses was involved. Somehow, that would become the perfect background for my book..
I was disconcerted to find out that it didn’t. A lot has happened since then. Now the largest landholder was a religious organization. Huge tracts were being sold, bringing unknown changes. And there were secret tunnels connecting many buildings. That was news to me and fascinating to a writer of mysteries. And that witchcraft shop was long gone but well remembered. Was there a way to slip it in? I certainly found wonderful material I could not fit it into the book and turned some of it into stories. (People really did sell the Brooklyn Bridge – repeatedly – and there was once a house there shared by Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. )
Did I succeed in turning this material into a book? A mystery? That will be up to readers to decide. I will be back here when Brooklyn Legacies is much closer to being out in the world. Today is really step one in the birth announcement process. “It’s a book!” Many thanks to PJ Nunn for inviting me to start here.
Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in Brooklyn. She writes mysteries about different Brooklyn neighborhoods and their unique histories, in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the next book, Brooklyn Legacies, murder gets in the way of heroine Erica Donato’s efforts to understand historic Brooklyn Heights’ clashing cultures and seismic current changes.
Setting my first series in South Carolina came with no choice because the first book in my series is quasi-autobiographical. I’d been offered a bribe at my work which, in a wild unraveling of events, led to my handling internal investigations for a federal agency in South Carolina. Knowing the state like the back of my hand and loving it dearly, I used it as practically a character in the Carolina Slade series.
I showed off my state, wanting to become the Sue Grafton of South Carolina, meaning I’d put Slade’s investigations in each of the 46 counties. My mission was clearly defined for the rest of my writing career, but my publisher felt otherwise.
After three Slade books, they asked for a new series. Admitting that I loved the Carolina setting, they dared me to choose one place and stick to it. One place that had immense appeal, but also that I felt passionately about. Thus, the Edisto Island Mysteries were born.
The largest seller of my books, other than Amazon, is the Edisto Bookstore. Who’d have known that a tiny bookstore, set at the end of the world on an island, would sell hundreds of my books?
Setting defines Callie Jean Morgan in the Edisto series. She reluctantly arrived on the island, leaving her other self behind, across the Big Bridge as is said on the island. I incorporated every saying, venue, street, and custom of the island into the mysteries. On an island where everyone escapes the rat-race, where doors remain unlocked, and people relax without reservation of what others think, I created crime where people assumed there was none. The juxtaposition of nonchalance and hidden danger.
Readers loved reading about where they visited, or where they lived. They cross the marsh on highway 174 and see where the officer drowned. They drive down Pine Landing Road and envision the shootout. They cruise Jungle Shores Road trying to identify where the police chief lives. . . where her mentor was murdered. . . where her yoga mistress best friend resides a stone’s throw away. . . where the break-in took place. Readers have come to signings asking if they got the addresses right as to where things went down in the books.
And they are hungry for more. Every time they come to the beach, they want another mystery to solve. . . something else to make them peruse the island beach and envision the crime, the sleuthing, and the place where it all went down in the end.
So now, when I have a new release, I start with setting first. . . and work outward. The locale is likewise the big splash for the book announcement, like my last book, Newberry Sin. Newberry is a small town in South Carolina, and when the book came out in 2018, the Friends of the Library had a luncheon that was well attended by 200 people eager to read fiction about their town. The year I released Palmetto Poison, the tiny town of Pelion made me their guest of honor at their annual festival.
By deeply entrenching a book into a real community, I gained loyal fans who repeatedly invite me back to libraries, bookstores, and book clubs for each new release.
So if I had to define what makes my series unique, it would be a strong sense of place. Strong enough to make people want to live there. A church, a silt road, a marshy bog, or the big bay where dolphins play. Each becomes a central, pivotal point around which the characters react. . . and the crime happens. And if readers gravitate to my stories for place first rather than mystery, I’m quite happy with that, because once they savor the story, they’ll be back to read anything else….that takes place anywhere else.
BIO – C. Hope Clark’s newest release is Dying on Edisto, a crossover book set on Edisto Island, where both her series protagonists finally meet to handle a lethal situation. Hope is the author of nine novels and three nonfiction books. She is published with Bell Bridge Books. Also, she is founder of FundsforWriters.com, chosen by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past 18 years. Her newsletter reaches 35,000 readers. www.chopeclark.com / www.fundsforwriters.com
One death. Two detectives. And unexpected backup.
A Callie Morgan and Carolina Slade crossover, standalone mystery!
When a renowned—and now dead—travel blogger washes ashore on the banks of Indigo Plantation, Edisto Beach Police Chief Callie Morgan agrees to head the investigation as a favor to the county sheriff, whose reasons are as questionable as the death itself. When death turns to murder and a watchdog from the county makes her investigation difficult, Callie reluctantly turns to Carolina Slade and Wayne Largo, vacationing agents with the Department of Agriculture.
Because poison is growing on this plantation and someone knows how to use it well.
Are you in a slump? You are not alone. The majority of authors are juggling day jobs, school, family, and other responsibilities. Consistency can be difficult to maintain. You get on a creative binge, churning out page after page of your next great story, and suddenly life intervenes, plugging that creative well. I have three suggestions to help you take advantage of times of drought or deluge.
- Log your time or your output
Some writers track pages per week or words per day. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track hours spent on actual writing and separate out critique, volunteer, and business hours. I even note life events that disrupt my writing time. Come up with a system that works for you.
Seeing your time or output can motivate you to keep writing until you hit your goal. It can relieve guilt during times when life legitimately gets in the way, and you can still see baby step progress despite adversity. Writing is the sort of activity that the more you do it, the easier it gets to slide into that creative zone. Write frequently, even if all you can manage is fifteen minutes at a time.
Once you start tracking time/output, you will begin to see a pattern of drought and deluge.
- Surviving Drought
Writing can be a lonely task devoid of reward. Inspiration may dry up from time to time. There are things you can do to make it through a creative drought.
Experiment with your writing schedule. If you’re too exhausted at the end of the day to be creative, try waking up an hour earlier, and writing when you have morning energy. Can you write during your lunch break? In a coffee shop for thirty minutes on the way home from work? Do you write best at night, when the rest of the household is in bed? Change things up. Try something new.
To stoke the creative fires, clear your head. Go for a walk. Meditate. Get away from distractions like your phone, television, all those things that scramble your brainwaves. Enjoy a creative hobby like sewing, painting, woodworking. Put together a jigsaw puzzle.
For a serious creative drought, dip into your reservoir of rough drafts and story idea files. Try switching gears to focus less on art and more on craft.
- Creating a Reservoir from Your Times of Deluge
Times of drought can result in stunted creativity and blunted motivation. In contrast, there are times of deluge – creative downpours where story ideas, character descriptions, and even entire scenes race out of your head and onto the computer screen. When the fever is on you, commit those ideas to paper or computer. Don’t sweat the polishing. That comes later.
Make use of those precious stretches of inspired writing to stock up for the times of drought. I’ve heard many authors relate how they pulled an old story draft out of a drawer, polished it, and sold it. Or maybe you’re talking to an agent at a writers’ conference, and he or she asks, “what else have you got?” Draw that idea from your well-stocked reservoir.
Keep a file of story ideas, either electronically or in a paper filing system. Hang on to those stories that just aren’t working. Maybe you need time to gain the right perspective on how to tell the story. When creativity dries up, or you don’t have a juicy stretch of time to brainstorm ideas, drag something out of your reservoir of unfinished work.
Learn the cycles and rhythms of your writing life by tracking your time or output. Stock your creative reservoir during times of deluge, so you have something to work on when the Muse has abandoned you. When your well is dry, focus on the craft side of fiction writing by editing rough drafts. You won’t stay stuck forever. Eventually, the deluge will return. Be ready!
Catherine Dilts is the author of the Rock Shop Mystery series, while her short stories appear regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She takes a turn in the multi-author cozy mystery series Secrets of the Castleton Manor Library. Working in the world of hazardous substances regulation, Catherine’s stories often have environmental or factory-based themes. Others reflect her love of the Colorado mountains. The two worlds collide in Survive Or Die. You can learn more about Catherine’s fiction at http://www.catherinedilts.com/ Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many years ago B.C. (Before Computers), I was eighteen and finally realized what I had been doing all my life, writing stories and poems and plays, could be my career. My goal in life was to have a book published. At the time, self-publishing was very expensive and the product didn’t look very good, so from the beginning, I wanted to be traditionally published. For all you young folks out there, that meant typing your novel on a typewriter, correcting mistakes with Wite-Out or Correcto-Tape, very messy and time-consuming techniques, finding a box the right size, making sure you had enough return postage, mailing it to New York, and waiting months and months for a rejection slip. This went on for years until something magical happened: personal computers and the internet.
Woo hoo! Now I could cut and paste and delete with ease. Now I had my own printer instead of having to haul three hundred pages down to the copy shop. Now I could email queries and sample chapters, save tons of money on postage, and be rejected in no time, at all! Then a real miracle happened. After twenty years of sending manuscripts out and getting them back, I got an agent. Okay, this was it! My future was assured!
Just one slight problem.
My agent said she could sell my book if I changed my hero to a woman. At the time, mystery authors with female protagonists were all the rage. I understood this. However, my Grace Street series featured a private investigator named David Randall.
In the first book, Stolen Hearts, Randall, struggling with the death of his little daughter, had come to stay with his best friend Camden, who was psychic and also a man, in Cam’s boarding house at 302 Grace Street, in my fictional city of Parkland, North Carolina. Having a setting like 302 Grace allowed all kinds of characters to move in and out as the series progressed, including Kary Ingram, Randall’s love interest, and Camden’s girlfriend, Ellin Belton, head of the Psychic Service Network. Way too many relationship problems to solve if Randall became a woman. Maybe there was a way out.
So I tried another angle. I wrote a book with a female PI, ex-beauty queen Madeline “Mac” Maclin and her con-man boyfriend, Jerry Fairweather, and set this book in a small fictional town much like my town of Mt. Airy, NC. I called it A Case of Imagination. Okay, now we’re good to go, I thought.
Here’s where the story gets dark. I spent quite a few sleepless nights thrashing this out. I’d waited twenty years for a breakthrough. I finally had an agent. She was telling me what I could do to get published, and I couldn’t do it. I’d spent those twenty years creating characters I loved, and I had thirteen manuscripts all finished. If David Randall became Donna Randall, the relationship between Randall and Cam would be dramatically different. So would Randall’s relationship with Kary. If I changed Randall, I had to change his entire world. My entire world.
I couldn’t do it.
The hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make was the one I made to my agent. We parted ways, and I went back to Writer’s Market. Many years later, I found Poisoned Pen Press. They didn’t require an agent. Ironically, the first book they published was A Case of Imagination, but since then, they’ve published four more of Madeline’s adventures and so far, six of the Grace Street mysteries with everyone’s original gender intact.
I started my quest when I was eighteen. I received my first book contract when I was fifty-five. It took longer than I’d hoped to be an overnight success, but I learned a lot about myself in the process. I’m grateful I didn’t have to compromise on my dream. So is David Randall.
Jane Tesh, a retired media specialist, lives in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Andy Griffith’s hometown, the real Mayberry. She is the author of the Madeline Maclin mysteries and the Grace Street Series. Her mysteries are set in fictional North Carolina towns and are on the light side with humor, romance, and a touch of the paranormal. They are published by Poisoned Pen Press. She is also the author of four fantasy novels, Butterfly Waltz, A Small Holiday, The Monsters of Spiders’ Rest, and Over the Edge, published by Silver Leaf Books. When she isn’t writing, Jane enjoys playing the piano and conducting the orchestra for productions at the Andy Griffith Playhouse.
“A P.I. and a psychic team up to solve a series of crimes. Tesh gets her new series off to a promising start.”
Kirkus on Stolen Hearts
“A gratifying blend of the surprising and the spirited.”
Publishers Weekly on Stolen Hearts
“The mystery plot is convincing and motives abound, but the vivid characters are the main draw, in particular the wryly observant Randall, who narrates the story with verve. Fans of cozies with a paranormal twist will be rewarded.”
Publisher’s Weekly on Death by Dragonfly
“Beauty pageant tomfoolery and psychic shenanigans add comic zest to Tesh’s cozy debut.”
Publishers Weekly on A Case of Imagination
Kirkus on Evil Turns
Sometimes a character name just pops into your head. Isis O’Reilly presented herself to my attention in that very way over two decades ago. She still has not been made her bow to the public although one of these days she may leap into view. But consider the name: it suggests someone of Irish heritage whose mother was interested in mythology. And right there you have the beginnings of constructing a character, one of the important considerations in picking names IMHO.
Unfortunately, the writer has to find the right name before foundations can be laid. So proceeding on this notion, let us consider ethnic names. Here there be listings of interest, as well as links to pages of
offering unusual or biblical names:
Speaking of unusual names, the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources database offers a mix of exotic and more familiar names, satisfying both camps engaged in the “what should I name my characters” wars.
Helena Swan’s Girl’s Christian Names, Their History, Meaning and Association appeared in the early 1900s. Here it might be as well to mention that in the UK a Christian name is equivalent to the US
forename. The index makes it easy to pick a name, given they range from Abigail to Zoe with fascinating notes about them, just as the title states.
Genealogy sites, ancient phonebooks, census records, and newspaper archives are fruitful sources, and all are easily found online. Another good source is the Social Security Administration website, which hosts a list of popular baby names by decade.
Poll lists are handy too. For example, picking a random block of five names from the 1880 New York City list produced Isaac Shedwick, William Smith Jr., Nicholas Stilwell, Lawrence Seabry, and Tobias Stoutenburg. Not surprisingly, this is a fertile source for male names given it was published quite some time before women were granted suffrage.
Creating a character hailing from Europe or descended from immigrants therefrom? The index of Robert Ferguson’s Surnames as a Science offers a dizzying amount of information on the topic. His index prints foreign names in italics along with their national origin. Dutch, Danish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish names are covered.
Speaking of foreign names, with a bit of a mix ‘n’ matching Gutenberg’s index of books could well be useful. This page lists authors whose works appear in languages from Afrikaans to Yiddish. Stick a pin in here and there and who knows what character names will result!
If all else fails, there are always those most useful standby, character name generators. This site can provide over 200,000 name possibilities, individual results produced by specifying gender, language,
nationality, parents’ names, friends, and other factors relevant to your character.
Some of my test drive results: Trinity Kaufman, Fynn Mccray, Azaan Rangel, and in a touch of woo-woo Reed Tilly. Amazing to relate, generated names are linked to their own bios including family details,
work, current relationship if any, hobbies, and a physical description. Can’t beat that with big stick!
A quick search of a second random name producer generated Georgetta Bourdeau, Dori Essex, Hilaria Wollman, and Wan Yoakum. Each is linked to others with the same first name or surname, so it’s particularly useful for naming characters’ relatives.
As for Isis O’Reilly, she’s still waiting for her fifteen minutes of fame. One of these days…
One of the reasons people read fiction—and this goes double, it seems to me, for genre fiction—is to escape. It’s to go into another world and forget, if only for a brief period of time, the realities of life we’d prefer avoiding—be it rising political unrest, climate change, a creeping deadline, or even just the dishes in the sink.
I once spent an entire summer in a fictional environment: I was depressed and didn’t want anything to do with my current reality, so I went through—in order—the entire Dick Francis opus. I’d finish one book and immediately pick up the next. Along with time and some therapy, those books, those alternative lives, got me through my problems with my own.
There’s nothing wrong with writing and reading good escapist literature. We need to be entertained, and stories can take us anywhere: they’re the magic carpet of the mind. This is especially true of mystery fiction—it’s not only far from our own lives, but often far from reality as well. Most murders, after all, are not committed in genteel circumstances by Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the knife.
And I wonder, sometimes, if playing the fiction card relieves us—readers and writers alike—from the storyteller’s responsibility, the obligation to observe and reflect a culture, a society, a time. I wonder if it doesn’t allow our characters and storylines to be just as avoidant of reality as we are.
The real question we need to be asking ourselves, the only question that really matters this year and probably for years to come, is what is the fiction writer’s responsibility in an age of “alternative facts?” In many ways, real life has taken over our genre: since the rise of “alternative facts,” what does the label “fiction” even mean? If the White House sells us fiction as a stand-in for reality, then perhaps we should be clear in our stories about the other truths—the ones that actually exist. We need to write fiction, but have it be true in a more essential way.
I’ve always believed the saying that “if you can write the stories for a society, it doesn’t matter who writes the laws.” Régimes come and go; stories endure. That’s at once a tremendous gift and a terrible mandate: the ability—and responsibility—to create something meaningful, something that will enrich and even perhaps change the lives of others.
I write that, and then I turn to the projects currently on my desk, and I feel some shame. While I do have a novel coming out in January that deals with the machinations of a medieval court (which in fact ring presciently true to the present), the next two books on my projects list for 2019 are part of a mystery series that, while arguably entertaining, is probably not going to change the world. I’m not saying the series doesn’t take on important issues (most of my novels could be subtitled Things Jeannette’s Been Obsessing About Lately), but they often feel like too little, too late. I’m responding to a runaway political system and a planet in crisis, both of which have moved on dramatically between the time I write and the time the novel goes to press. So even as I create truths via fiction to counter “alternative facts,” I’m always going to be dealing with a moving target.
Is that an excuse not to try? Of course not. And perhaps it will prod me—prod all of us—into going just a little deeper, questioning just a little more, and engaging just a little more thoughtfully—while, of course, keeping the whole enterprise entertaining enough that people will actually want to read the damn book!
Jeannette de Beauvoir’s most recent novel in the Sydney Riles series is The Deadliest Blessing, taking place during Provincetown’s Portuguese Festival. She lives and works in a small cottage with her cat Beckett and thousands of books. More at http://www.jeannettedebeauvoir.com.