Interview With Author Nick Russell

VP Chandler

Written by V.P. Chandler

I’ve been following Nick Russell for a few years and have found him to be funny and fascinating. So I wanted to introduce him to all of you!

VP Chandler- Nick Russell, welcome to the AMW blog and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’ve followed you and your work for a few years now and I have to say, you’re a very interesting person! It’s like you’ve lived different lives within your lifetime. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Author Nick Russell


Nick Russell – I have had some adventures and a lot of fun in my life, no question about that. My dad was a Border Patrolman back in the days when they rode horses as much as trucks or Jeeps, and I spent much of my early years living on the Southwest border. I joined the Army right out of high school and spent fourteen months as an Infantry squad leader with the 1st Cavalry in Vietnam, and when I came home, I was a firearms instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point. When I left the Army, I spent a few years working as a criminal investigator for the Arizona Attorney General’s office. But from the time I was a kid, my first love has always been writing, and I started and ran several small town newspapers on the Pacific Northwest coast and in Arizona. In 1999 my wife Terry and I sold everything, bought a motorhome, and spent the next 18+ years living and traveling on the road full-time, publishing the Gypsy Journal RV travel newspaper. In later 1999 we hung up the keys and bought a home on the central Florida Atlantic coast.


VP Chandler- Wow! I knew that you had done a lot of things but I hadn’t realized just how many. When did you know that you wanted to write mysteries and how is it different from writing the news?


Nick Russell– I had written and self-published ten nonfiction RV/travel books but never had any faith in my ability to write fiction. I actually wrote my first mystery, Big Lake, before we hit the road full-time, then I sat on it for 14 years until my wife finally nagged me into publishing it as an ebook on Amazon in May of 2011. That December, it made the New York Times bestseller list, and I guess the rest is history. I usually put out four books a year, but last year I managed to do six, including two books in my new Tinder Street historical saga. I will be releasing my 44th book late this month or in early February. As for the difference between writing mysteries and the news, mysteries are much more fun. When writing a newspaper story, you are telling the facts of who, what, where, when, why, and sometimes how. And sometimes a news story leaves you feeling unsettled because there isn’t always an immediate resolution, if ever. In writing fiction, I can use my imagination, and the bad guys don’t go free on a technicality. However, I can tell you this, if I tried to use some of the stories I covered in my newspaper days in one of my books, readers would say that was way too wild to believe!


VP Chandler– I didn’t realize that you had been a NY Times best seller! Good for you! Can you tell us how your life experiences have influenced your stories?


Nick Russell – In many ways, I think. I believe I have seen and done things that most authors never will, and I try to incorporate some of that into my books. I know what it feels like to have bullets fired at me and to see my friends killed or wounded. I know what it’s like to be the man pulling the trigger and its long-term effects on a person. I have seen the agony of the families of crime victims and those killed and maimed by drunk drivers. My newspapers were all in small towns, and my mysteries are set in small towns because I know how people in those kinds of communities think, how they act, their hidden prejudices, the oddball characters that every small town has, and the challenges their citizens sometimes have in trying to make a living with limited opportunities. I try to incorporate all of that into my books.

VP Chandler– Do you use any special computer programs to help you write?


Nick Russell– I use Grammarly, though I sometimes feel it is more trouble than it is worth, especially in writing regional dialect.  I also use Dragon Professional dictation software since I am a very slow two-finger typist at best. However, it comes with its own challenges and is not nearly as accurate as their television commercials would have you believe.


VP Chandler– You’re also well known for your blog and I’ve noticed that you write for it every day. Is that a habit left over from your newspaper days?

Nick Russell– I started the blog as a marketing tool and income source back around 2007 when we were publishing the Gypsy Journal, and at one time, it was getting over 700,000 hits a year. That number has dropped by at least half now, but I still do a 500 to 1,000 word blog every day. It is a good way to keep in touch with my readers, and it’s still a great marketing tool. It is not uncommon for me to announce a new book in the blog and see a thousand sales in the next 24 to 48 hours.


VP Chandler– Holy cow! That’s certainly something that many writers can learn from. You mentioned earlier that you’re now trying your hand at historical fiction. How’s that going?


Nick-  I have always wanted to write a family saga, and last year my wife had a dream about a family who lived through hard times but stuck together, and the strong women in the family who were well known for always being there for their neighbors in need that the locals called the street they lived on Tender Street instead of its official name of Tinder Street. I knew that was the story I had to write. The first two books in the series have been well received, and I will start on the third book in the series sometime in March. They have become my personal favorites of all of my books.


VP Chandler– That’s great! Anything else that you’d like to tell our readers?

Nick Russell– From the time I was a kid, I loved books and reading. They took me on adventures that no movie or television show ever could, and my dream was to someday write stories that would take others on their
own adventures. Doing so is the most fun I have ever had. It’s been said that if you love what you’re
doing, you’ll never work a day in your life. I know that’s true, because I never have.

VP Chandler– Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope that many readers discover your writing and enjoy as much as I have.

You can find all of Nick’s books at his author page on Amazon. Nick Russell on Amazon

His most recent book is Big Lake Hoarder and he will be releasing his 9th John Lee Quarrels book the end of the month, Fresh Out Of Mojo. So keep an eye out for that one.
You can follow his blog at the link, Nick’s blog.

Crime Fiction for Podcast Lovers

It was bound to happen.  

The rise in popularity of podcasts has turned the form into a compelling backdrop for crime fiction.  I, for one, love this concept because it brings together two of my most favorite pastimes.  A fan of storytelling in all its structures, I am now more likely to listen to a podcast than to music (although Stevie Ray Vaughn still tops my list of all audio choices).  There’s nothing quite like a good podcast to distract me from the drudgery of household chores or other tasks I’d rather ignore.  

So, when I discovered some of my favorite crime fiction authors had released novels with a podcast element, I was all ears (and eyes).  My two top picks are:

Conviction by Denise Mina

CONVICTION by Denise Mina:  A Glasgow housewife trapped in a troubled marriage finds herself in danger once she realizes her favorite true crime podcast hits too close to home.  One morning, while Anna McDonald is wrapped up listening to a true crime podcast as she’s getting her kids ready for school, her husband says something to her that changes the course of her life.  She retreats back to the comfort of her podcast, one that tells the story of a murdered family, a sunken luxury yacht and a mystery that includes international intrigue. Anna realizes that she knows the victims from her previous life and believes she knows the truth about what happened to the family.  Soon, Anna is on the run with a troubled neighbor in tow, and both of their lives are in danger.  

CONVICTION was one of my favorite recent reads.  I realize it’s quite different from Mina’s other novels, and I love her willingness to experiment. Mina’s ability to tackle difficult topics of trauma, relationships and ownership of one’s private history while doing so with a bit of dark humor and soul is a rare talent that should be recognized.  A big thanks to Scott Montgomery at BookPeople for suggesting this book.  I now have several other Mina novels on my TBR.

He loves beaches and books!

NEVER LOOK BACK by Alison Gaylin:  True crime podcaster Quentin Garrison is investigating a horrific crime spree (called the Inland Empire Killings) that took place in Southern California in the 1970s by troubled lovers April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy.  Quentin has a very personal stake in the story; he believes April and Gabriel are the reason for his difficult childhood. April and Gabriel were thought to have perished in a fire at the end of their crime spree, but now new evidence comes to light. When Quentin receives a tip that April might still be alive, he pursues the truth at any cost.  

NEVER LOOK BACK is told from the viewpoints of characters most impacted by the Inland Empire killings. Gaylin explores the concept of how well we know ourselves, our parents and those close to us through the prism of digging into the past and questioning what we thought we knew. The book’s twisty plot will keep readers guessing.  Gaylin touches on current topics while also exploring the deeper issues of the stories we tell ourselves and how far we’re willing to push to find answers that we may—or may not—want to know.

-Laura Oles

J.D. Robb’s Holiday in Death

kp gresham

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

My Go-To Seasonal Escape!

When the holidays come around, I can’t help it. Sometimes I get so stressed I just wanna kill somebody. (On paper, of course!) It can be very cathartic.

But if my murderous muse isn’t singing, I turn to my favorite holiday crime novel, Holiday in Death, by the supreme, futuristic murder writer, J.D. Robb. (It irks me that some industry aficionados refer to this series as “romantic suspense.” Sure, it has a romance in it, BUT, this is a crime novel in every sense!)

Holiday in Death is the seventh in the now fifty-one book series about New York murder cop Eve Dallas and her devastatingly rich, handsome and techno-wizard husband, Roarke. Did you catch that? There are fifty-one books in this series, with the next, Faithless in Death, coming February 9, 2021.

But I digress. Here’s the scoop on my favorite Christmas mystery taken from its Publisher’s Weekly review 6/01/1998.

The year is 2058. Guns are banned and medical science has learned how to prolong life to well beyond the century mark. And man has yet to stop killing man. At Cop Central, it’s Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s job to stand up for the dead. So begins the seventh riveting installment in Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) futuristic romantic suspense series (following Vengeance in Death). With Christmas only weeks away, Eve is stressing out trying to find the right gift for her new husband, Rourke, who “”not only had everything, but owned most of the plants and factories that made it.”” More to her concern is the latest serial killer who is using “”The Twelve Days of Christmas”” as a theme for his heinous rape and murder spree. The case touches Eve on a personal level, and while flash-backs from her abusive childhood are flinchingly repetitious, it defines Eve’s gritty, hard-boiled character and validates her obsessive determination to bring down the killer any way she can.

So if the holidays stress you out, grab a peppermint-schnapps-laced, hot chocolate, get in that comfy chair in front of the fireplace, turn on that Tiffany lamp that casts just enough light for you to read by, settle your animal on your lap, and crack open this great read.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

P.S. There is one story I like better at this time of year, just for the record. You’ll find it in the Bible’s new Testament. I usually start at Luke, chapter one.

###

K.P. Gresham writes the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.

Lost and Found

 

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
– Eudora WeltyOne Writer’s Beginnings

In 2000, I wrote a story I titled, “Stop Signs.”

That was in the Dark Ages. Ancient desktop, probably Windows 3.1 and  WordPerfect. Hard drives. Floppy disks that didn’t flop.

I composed in cursive—sat on the bed with a pencil and a tablet, wrote a couple of pages, crossed the room to type the fragment into a document and make some edits, moved back to the bed to pencil two or three more pages, went back to the computer to transcribe and edit, moved back to the bed . . . And reaching “The End,” printed and penciled in more edits, then went back to the keyboard to type the changes, then printed and penciled more edits, then back to the keyboard . . .

It was my second foray into fiction. I rather liked the result, and as a naive newbie, I submitted it to a contest. A month later the North Texas Professional Writers Association notified me the story had placed first in its fiction division. They enclosed a check for $50 (real money!) and a copy of the chapbook in which winners’ work was published.

Later I became comfortable composing at the keyboard. I printed, marked the manuscript, revised and edited the document, went through that process several times, stored the file, ripped up the paper.

Down the road apiece, “hard copies” became unnecessary—just attach a file and email it off to contests or zines. Easy peasy.

And then came another desktop, and laptops, and new versions of Windows, one after the other, and CD-ROMS (writable!), and external backups, and online backup services, and cloud backups, and a whole raft of things I’ve never heard of.

The paperless society. Everything on record, available at the touch of a fingertip, no document or image ever lost.

Yeah, right.

First, a flash drive disappeared. Several years later, during one of my 3:00 a.m. housecleaning binges, I moved the refrigerator and found it lying beneath, stashed there by a cat with her own method of digital storage. But it was no big deal; most of the documents were safe on the hard drive.

Then there was the crash. I’d been thinking about subscribing to an online backup service but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Still, no big deal. I’d hidden all the flash drives from the cat. And, quite frankly, there were a few files I was relieved to lose.

But last week I realized I’d lost something that matters: “Stop Signs.” My award-winning story. The first story that I was paid for. In money.

But more important than awards or money—my words were missing.

The file isn’t on my hard drive. Or in the cloud. Or in Drop Box. And I can’t find the chapbook.

Oh, it isn’t really lost. The chapbook is here. Somewhere. When we moved last year, I packed it. I just don’t know where it landed. Saturday, I went hunting.

I didn’t find it. I found something better: a draft of an interview I did in the early 1980s with my Great-aunt Bettie Pittman Waller, who was married to my grandfather’s older brother Maurice. It’s a mess, pages unnumbered–it was typed on a typewriter, probably directly from the cassette tape–with scribbled directions for moving this paragraph here and that paragraph there, to make it into a coherent whole.

Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice grew up in the Cottonwood Community in Guadalupe County, across the San Marcos River from the town of Fentress, Texas, where they lived for most of the nearly sixty-five years they were married. They were pillars of both Presbyterian and Methodist Churches—in the back pew of the Methodist Church on first and third Sundays, the back pew of the Presbyterian on second and fourth. What other people did was none of their business. They didn’t judge. They also didn’t sit down front because Uncle Maurice had no intention of being noticed and possibly asked to take up collection.

When they married, all she knew how to cook was pancakes. Three months later, Uncle Maurice told her she was simply going to have to learn to make something else.

She was born in 1886 and died in 1987; for most of that time, her mind was sharp and her memory impeccable. She moved from Cottonwood to Fentress in 1901, was the youngest resident, when her widowed mother built a boarding house there. She remembered names and dates. She held the history of the town.

She told stories about their marriage and the town and the people, and Uncle Maurice, who was known for not talking, sat there shaking with silent laughter. There was so much to laugh about.

Why does all this matter? Because I was a listening child. Because my roots are deep in the town she was so much a part of. A small, insignificant place, except to the few who remember.

Because that’s where my imagination lives.

Because my work in progress is set in a little town named Cottonwood, whose history is very like that of the small, insignificant place.

Frank Waller with catfish. He believed stop signs cause wrecks.

Because “Stop Signs” begins, My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks—a statement my grandfather made while I was listening.

Because history isn’t a list of presidents and kings, wars and laws and dates. It’s ordinary people, who they were, what they did, day after ordinary day.

And because those ordinary people and places should not be forgotten.

###

The following is an excerpt of the interview with Aunt Bettie–her first date with Uncle Maurice, and two events that happened early in their marriage, while they were still living on the farm. “Pat” was Uncle Maurice’s pet name for Aunt Bettie. Barney and Frank are Uncle Maurice’s brothers. Tishie is Aunt Bettie’s older sister, Letitia. Old Fritz is a horse.

******

Maurice and I married in 1905. I remember our first date; we didn’t know the word “date,” we called it “having company.”

 

Bettie Pittman and Maurice Waller. Wedding picture, 1905.

Mama wouldn’t let me go with boys. That was my sixteenth birthday, and I slipped off to go. I wasn’t proud of it, bit I did.

Ollie Hudgens was my best friend and Maurice’s cousin, and Pent Gregg was Maurice’s best friend and my cousin. Mr. Hudgens didn’t like Pent, but Ollie went with him anyway. Ollie was going to spend the night with me on my birthday, and Pent was going out with Ollie, and he didn’t want me along, so he made Maurice go along, too. I left home with Pent and Ollie, and later Maurice caught up with us. He had borrowed a buggy.

We were going to a protracted meeting at the Baptist Church at Prairie Lea. It was very dusty, the 19th of June, and watermelons were in. The 19th was always the biggest part of the melon season. Maurice had access to the icebox at the [family] store, and he put a melon in for us to eat after church.

Maurice had never had a date either, and we didn’t know what to say. Going down, I said, “It’s sure dusty, isn’t it?” and he said, “Surely is.” That’s all we said all the way to Prairie Lea. But on the way home, we got better acquainted.

It was the brightest moonlight I ever saw. We had to cross the river, and there was a gravel bar there. When we got home, Maurice got the melon, and it was cold and nice, and we four went down on the gravel bar and ate the melon. We had such a nice time. I called it my sixteenth birthday party—it was the first party I’d ever had.

But then I couldn’t get Mama to let me go out again. I cried and begged Mama to let me go. Tishie had a different way with Mama—she got mad and talked back, and then she didn’t get to go anywhere either. But I knew better.

So I had to slip around to see Maurice. I wasn’t proud, but that was the only way I could see him.

###

To Maurice, this was the funniest thing that ever happened. Ward Lane got muddy when it rained much. If you kept in the ruts, you did all right and didn’t stick. But it wasn’t wide enough for two to pass. You could probably squeeze by if it was dry, but not if there was mud.

There was a show in Fentress that night—we lived on the farm that year—and we went early, before dark. On the way home, about ten o’clock, it was bright moonlight. We had to go very slow because it was so muddy.

Our buggy didn’t have a top—it was a trap, a popular kind for youngsters then. I don’t know whose it was; well, I guess it was ours, because we were married then. Before we married, Maurice shared a buggy, but Frank didn’t go out with girls till he started going with Vida, so he didn’t need it much.

That night Maurice didn’t hold to the reins tight. The wheel hub on his side hit a fence post and knocked the car around. I fell perfectly flat on my back in the mudhole. It was so bright you could see very well.

I said, “Oh, I’m killed!”

Maurice didn’t say anything, and then I realized he was laughing as hard as he could. I thought, He doesn’t care if I am killed. That crossed my mind.

When he finally could talk, he said, “I’m just getting even with you.”

I wasn’t fit to get back in the buggy; I sat on the edge of the seat all the way home. I was wearing a white linen dress I had made, and I thought it was so pretty, and that stain never did come out. Boiling didn’t take it out. It was a fine woven cloth, and it was ruined.

But Maurice had a lot of fun out of it. Whenever it was mentioned, he would say, “Well, I just got even—I always wanted to.”

###

What he was getting even for happened soon after Barney and Hallie married. Maurice and I had been married a while, but I wasn’t a housewife, and I didn’t know anything about entertaining. It was Sunday morning, very cold, and we had a fire in one room, the only room where we could have a fire. Maurice was taking a bath in there, just inside the kitchen door to the dining room.

We heard a knock at the door, and I went to answer it, and Maurice said, “Pat, don’t ask them in here.”

But it was Barney and Hallie—he had come to introduce his new wife to us—and I didn’t know what else to do, so I said, “Won’t you come in?”

When we got into the kitchen, Maurice had disappeared.

 

Maurice and Bettie Pittman Waller, ca. 1940s.

Well, I was so tickled that I know Barn and Hallie thought something was wrong with me. They sat down and we visited and in a minute Barney said, “Bettie, when we drove around back, old Fritz had his head in the crib and was eating corn.” We had just a little corn out there to feed him, so I was going out to shut the door, even if it was cold.

When I passed through the dining room, there was Maurice, plastered up against the wall, wet and without a stitch on, just freezing to death. He said, “Bettie, get me some clothes.”

I just walked out and laid my head up against the corn crib and laughed till I cried.

Maurice was furious; that was the first time he’d got mad at me like that.

He never did get over it till he knocked me in the mud.

***

Image of floppy disk by Pixel_perfect from Pixabay

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She’s published stories in Murder on Wheels, Day of the Dark, and Lone Star Lawless, and at Mysterical-E. She’s working, slowly, on a mystery novel.

THE LONGEST NIGHTS AND THE FESTIVALS OF LIGHT

By

Francine Paino

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, December 21, 2020, will happen at the same instant for all of us, ushering in the longest night of the year. Therefore, it is appropriate that December celebrates so many festivals and religious holidays, using lights and candles in their traditions to illuminate the darkness. Depending on where one looks, there are many festivals in various cultures. Still, the three most recognized December celebrations in North America are Kwanzaa, Hannakuh, and Christmas. Each of them lights the cold, dark days of December with warmth, love, unity, family, and spirituality.

Kwanzaa was introduced in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African-Americans. This holiday’s seven principles are self-determination, collective work, responsibility, unity, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Candles are lit to represent each of these principles, and gifts are exchanged on December 31, with banquets of food, often from various African countries. May peace, love, and unity bring a happy Kwanzaa to all and blessings on your families.

The oldest of these three holidays is the eight-day celebration of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. It will begin on December 10 and end on December 18, commemorating the rededication in Jerusalem of the second Temple, which was fought for and won back from Greek-Syrian oppressors.   Historically, Israel’s land fell to Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He permitted the Jews to continue practicing their religion, but his son Antiochus IV was not as benevolent. He ordered Jews to worship the Greek gods, and when they resisted, Antiochus IV massacred thousands of them and desecrated the city’s holy Second Temple by building an altar to Zeus, upon which they sacrificed pigs. 

According to the Talmud, it was the Maccabee Revolt, in 168 B.C. that won back the temple. Following a three-year war and eventual victory, they cleaned the Temple, destroyed the defiled altar, and built a new one. When the Maccabees held the rededication celebration and rekindled the menorah, they found they only had and enough untainted oil to light the menorah for one night. Miraculously, the flickering flames continued to burn for eight nights, giving them enough time to find a fresh supply. 

There are other interpretations of the Hannukah story. Still, no matter which one a person ascribes to, Hannukah is celebrated for eight nights, with ritual blessings recited upon lighting each candle of the prominently displayed menorah.             There are particular foods prepared to celebrate the Hannukah tradition including potato latkes and jam-filled donuts, and children delight in playing with the four-sided spinning tops called Dreidels—Chag Hannukah Sameach or Happy Hannukah to all, and blessings on your families.

 

 

 

Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that after Herod Archelaus, a Roman client king, converted his territory, Judea, into a Roman province, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the newly-appointed governor, was assigned to carry out a tax census.

According to Christian scripture, Joseph and his wife, Maryam, devout Jews, went from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from the house of David. When they arrived, Maryam began her labor and there was no room for them at the inns. Without lodgings, they found shelter in a nearby cave, which was also a stable, and there Jesus was born. Mary placed her sleeping baby in an animal trough filled with clean hay. 

Out in the cold, dark night, in the countryside near Bethlehem, angels appeared and announced the good news to the shepherds, watching their flocks. The Messiah had been born. The shepherds listened to the angels and found the baby Jesus, sleeping in the manger in Bethlehem.

Traveling for days, following a brilliant star shining over the stable where Jesus was born, the Magi, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar came from distant eastern countries, arriving days later with gifts for the newborn king. Gold to honor his kingship, Frankincense to recognize his deity, and Myrrh a particular anointing oil.

Over centuries, the gift-giving ritual commemorating the gifts brought by the three wise men devolved into a fully commercialized event. It pays less attention to the significance of Christ’s birth but is still a celebration of light and joy. Whether celebrating Christmas as a gift-giving holiday tradition or commemorating it as the birth of Jesus, it is a time of joy, hope, and love.

And so, the dark days and long nights of December are lit by traditions and celebrations of light, love, and the blessings of family and friends. 

Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hannukah, and Happy Christmas!

Introducing The Dark Beat Podcast

VP Chandler

by V.P. Chandler

Like most crime fiction authors, I’m interested in true crimes. And if you recall a few posts ago, I listed my current favorite podcasts. True Crime Podcasts Worthy of Binge Listening

In addition, about a year ago my friend and suspense author, Alexandra Burt, mentioned that she was writing about a crime that had happened in her hometown in Fulda, German, in 1983. An anthology was asking for short stories, so she submitted it and it was accepted into the publication.

(As mentioned in the interview by Laura Oles- An Interview with Crime Writer Alexandra Burt)

Working on that story got her to thinking about things back in Germany and she did some poking around and well, there were some revelations and things got crazy. So, what did I do? I said, “This is fascinating. We should start a podcast!”

And if you know me, I’m always eager to try my hand at something new. (Hello, cello and bass guitar that I bought a few years ago, even though I’m 50+ years old.)

So, … we started a podcast! Not only will we be discussing the crime in Germany, we will be interviewing authors and even law enforcement professionals. We’ll be talking about crimes, solved and unsolved, that happened long ago and in the recent past. And because we are who we are, we’ll also be poking around to get to the truth. We plan on being meddling “kids”.

I think we have a Scooby Doo.
Will we need a Fred or a Shaggy?

(I’ve always thought of myself as a Velma. I think Alexandra is more like Daphne, the newer version who knows martial arts.)

We are both excited about our new endeavor. But don’t worry, we’ll still be writing scary stories.

So please follow us as we investigate crimes! All of the information and links can be found on our Anchor page.

And you can get updates and additional content on our Facebook page

“Check. Check. Is this mic on?”

You can learn more about V.P. Chandler and her adventures at vpchandler.com

Where Are We? Trowels Up!

by Helen Currie Foster

Try to imagine a mystery without its setting. What? You’re having trouble?

Open a mystery and be denied the setting. What? You’re getting irritated? Why?

We use our senses to smell, to see, to hear, to feel a setting. We LIVE in our own settings, with their dimensions of sight, smell, sound, touch, with plants to see and smell and touch, other humans to love or fear. We use all our senses to apprehend a setting, and we imagine with those senses when we engage in a mystery setting. A mystery without a setting? Our imaginations would feel so deprived.

And if we’re talking about a “regional” mystery without a setting—what’s the point? I read about Venice because I want to feel I’m there as well as follow Guido Brunetti around his favorite canals. If it’s one of Spencer Quinn’s  Chet and Bernie mysteries I want to ride with Bernie in his beat-up Porsche, with Chet in the front seat (his tongue hanging out of course), cruising through the Arizona desert.

Texas mysteries? Local color, please. Note that term “color,” that appeal to our senses! The color of eyes and landscapes, the sound of accents and music, the feel of dry wind or thunderstorms, the scent of salsa and barbecue, saddles and blankets, cedar and limestone, creek water and cypress trees. We want it all.

We mystery writers face so many decisions. Protagonist? Characters? Point(s) of view? Tenses? Oh yeah, the plot? But perhaps paramount? Setting.

At last year’s Bouchercon conference in Dallas, Elizabeth George told a rapt audience (including me) that in her Lynley series she begins with the setting. She described visiting various settings and how the characters emerged in her imagination—from the place.

Alexander McCall Smith agrees that in his novels, location is as important as the characters. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.”  Our feelings for the world! Or at least, for the world of that setting.

Smith describes how he begins a book: “I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.”

His first sentence usually drops us directly into the setting, as in To the Land of Long Lost Friends (Pantheon Books 2019):

“Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association, citizen of Botswana)—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi.”

The paragraph continues: “It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains…”

We know we’re in Botswana at an open-air wedding where we’ve learned of the sleuth, her partner, and her husband, but the rest of the paragraph tells us even more: it’s hot and dry October, a time of “unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks…”

We’ve felt how the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives and breathes awareness of her country, where all creatures—human and otherwise, even the invisible creatures whose names have been forgotten—are waiting for the rains. What an appeal to imagination! Maybe this setting has extra appeal for readers in central Texas who know all too well the unforgiving heat of August, its crunchy dry grass, cracks in the soil, and desperate deer, waiting for a rousing thunderstorm to refill dry water tanks and refresh even the “small, almost invisible creatures” that surround us.

So a mystery setting is much more than a GPS setting. Accuracy’s important, as Rhys Bowen emphasized in her presentation to HOTXSINC (Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime): the writer risks losing all credibility with mistakes in location or description. But the mystery setting must include how the characters feel about the setting—which reveals more about the characters.

Here’s the beginning of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise (copyright 1951; Scribner Paperback Fiction 1998), with her series protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard:

“Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.

“He was not going to the party. Literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea. He was going to collect Marta Hallard and take her out to dinner…The roar of the party’s success came flooding out through the open doors on to the landing, and Grant paused to look at the yelling crowd asparagus-packed into the long Georgian room and to wonder how he was going to pry Marta out of it.”

Ever felt like that, dear reader? Ever dreaded having to walk into a “roaring success” of a party with a “yelling crowd asparagus-packed”? I’m betting most of us (with our share of introversion) have “reluctant legs” in such situations. On Tey’s first page we learn Grant’s a “presentable escort,” a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, and can “afford to dine at Laurent’s.” But his “reluctant legs” indicate how this privileged character feels about even a “distinguished” literary sherry party. By dropping us into this particular London setting Tey helps us identify with her protagonist by his reaction to that setting. We walk with his “reluctant legs” up those steps. We understand that he (probably like us) is there because he feels an obligation, and, despite his feelings, he’s a man who meets his obligations.

Setting’s critical for regional mysteries. “The setting may define the mystery: an Arizona book, a Missouri story, a Cape Cod [or a Texas] mystery. In regional mysteries, the setting is more than mere background. The setting influences the characters and plot. It drives the story.” (Emphasis added.)

Texas writer Tex Thompson pointed out in her recent presentation to HOTXSINC that one way to dial up the conflict in our mysteries is to dial up the contrast between the character and the setting.  For example, is the protagonist a fish out of water? In my Ghost Cat, the protagonist Alice practices law in a small Texas town but fears any firearm other than a flare gun and feels like a complete impostor on a horse.

One engaging archeological mystery dive is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Series set on the marshes of Norfolk, England. Ruth, a forensic archeologist, is often called to help local police when bones are found at construction sites. She feels many disconnects—unmarried mother of a daughter, slightly overweight, harassed by her university department head––but takes pride in her competence as a sharp-eyed and professional archeologist. She lives on a lonely road by the coastal saltmarsh, where water meets land, a liminal area with Bronze Age artifacts buried deep. Her love for this location drives the plot and enriches her character:

“Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, sported with stunted gorsebushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams…Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”

I wonder if archeology offers a challenge to our own imaginations. Just north of Austin is an archeological site including the “Gault Assemblage.” Very careful long-term excavation and documentation of the site now reveal human occupancy up to 20,000 years ago—much earlier than traditionally thought. The dates for human habitation in North and South America keep moving further and further back. And why wouldn’t early people have chosen this area? It’s on water…there’s chert available to chip into powerful tools…the nearby plains furnished buffalo. Similarly, recent breakthroughs in dating Neanderthal tools have pushed back dates for their culture by several hundred thousand years. Most artifacts of that age are lithic (rock points, rock knapping), and it takes sustained imagination and examination to understand what our ancestors were up to. It takes human imagination, staring at a biface point, looking at a reassembled cobble, to see the chipping techniques our ancestors developed, to begin to grasp the complex reality of their daily lives—their setting. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

In a way mystery-writing is archeological. In our imaginations we excavate clues from the past—perhaps an imagined past—to recreate what happened, or could have happened. We recreate in our imaginations what our characters saw, smelled, heard, felt…and did. Maybe the more richly we imagine the setting, the more the characters can come alive.

Okay, trowels up. Back to the trenches. Well, not archeological—but fingers on keyboards, pens on paper.

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, her latest, Ghost Cat, was published in April 2020.  She is also author of The Bloody Bead, a Bullet Book Speed Read, co-written with Manning Wolfe.

Meta Magic: (Listening to) Writers on Writing

As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. 

It’s not just me, is it?  

As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break.  I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel. 

I enjoy listening to other creatives discuss their process.  I think, early on in my writing career, I hoped to glean that ONE RIGHT WAY to outline/plot/write a novel, but after so many years, I have come to learn that there is no single right way. And that each book may be different. A process that worked for one book no longer seems to bring results on the next project. Still, there’s something inspiring and interesting about listening to others talk about how they take their ideas and turn them into a story, how they wrestle with the demands of work/family/life obligations while working on a project. So, when I want to remain in the creative space but need a little distance from my own work, I turn to others to better understand how they manage their creative lives.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

(Night Vale Presents) Start With This (Podcast):  This podcast, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, tackle all aspects of writing from dialogue and pacing to creative crises and dealing with feedback.  Each episode is in the half hour range, perfect for a listen as you walk your dog or work around the house. If you’re struggling with some aspect of your writing, take a break and tune in. It might be just what you need to get back on track.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Netflix):  Jerry Seinfeld is known for his intense discipline to the craft of writing, for the daily dedication he still has in improving his skill at one-man storytelling, even though his Seinfeld show fame means he would never need to work again. This passion for creating and writing is on full display as he interviews other comedians to discuss all aspects of storytelling, writing and entertaining an audience. It’s a quirky show that speaks to my quirky heart. And the episode with Mel Brooks is pure gold.

Ten Minute Writers Workshop (NPR Podcast): Although this podcast wrapped last year, there are sixty ten-minute episodes with writers such as Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Tana French, and Tom Perrotta. This remains one of my favorite podcasts because Virginia Prescott gives us a peak into the habits of some of today’s most talented writers, and her interview format is designed to help other writers in their own pursuits.

  Here’s the Thing (NPR Podcast):  Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills. This one surprised me in all the best ways. He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan. Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships. For those who want to listen to the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong.  

–Laura Oles

Writing Humor in Mysteries

By K.P. Gresham

kp gresham

I recently appeared on a “Writing Humor in Mysteries” panel at the Pflugerville, Texas, Library along with fellow authors Kelly Cochran and Nancy West.  My first reaction was the old adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Unless you’re talking about the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau, one doesn’t usually think that humor and death work well as a pair. 

Although the mysteries I write are serious, I find that interjecting comedy into the either the character or plot (or both) really moves the action along. It picks up the pacing, gives more depth to characters, and sometimes you just have to lighten the moment for the reader as the plot turns darker and darker.

I once read a blog by Zia Westfield (www.ziawestfield.com) and she outlined five elements that often appear in comedic mysteries.

  1. The Screwball Heroine (think “I Love Lucy”)
  2. The Wacky Secondary Character (obviously Ethel Mertz comes to mind)
  3. The Snowball Effect (Events become more and more out of control)
  4. Whatever Can Go Wrong, Make it a Hundred Times Worse (back to Lucille Ball)
  5. Snappy Dialogue and Word Choice (Here pacing is everything)
Preacher's First Murder

In more serious murder mysteries, however, to me its all about the characters. For example, its possible to have a series of homicides and a very serious detective, but a side character can provide the comedic relief. In The Preacher’s First Murder, an elderly woman has gone missing and is considered to be in danger. Very scary stuff for the family. Enter an idiot rookie “hunter” who didn’t know a rifle from a shotgun. His exploits provided the needed chuckle to break up the intense drama.

I’ve also found that putting my hero in a foreign place presents lots of opportunity for the hero’s inner dialogue to ponder this “new world.” Again, in The Preacher’s First Murder, the hero, originally from Miami, has moved to small town Texas. The first time someone says “She makes a hornet look cuddly” he realizes he’s not in…well, you know.

For me, the easiest way to write humor is in first person, and I’ve found it to be a lot of fun. Most stories come from experiences I’ve had, a belly laugh all over. “Write What You Know”, as they say. Perhaps it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. It really helps to write humorous mysteries if you have a sense of humor yourself. Odds are that what makes you laugh will make others laugh too.

Anyway, feel free to check out the writing comedic mysteries at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ur2gyXHEvM&feature=youtu.be

Special thanks to Margaret Miller for the invitation to participate and awesome kudos to my fellow panelists Kelly Cochran and Nancy West!

Check out more about K.P. Gresham at her website, http://www.kpgresham.com

Her books in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series include

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

BOO! by Fran Paino

All Hallows Eve approaches, and it’s not just the children who love this holiday, with its ghost stories and the trick-or-treat traditions. According to the National Retail Federation, “more than 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities,” [[i]] despite the restrictions of COVID-19! What is it that we love so much about Halloween? 

        According to a Purdue University professor, Halloween lets us experience a good scare without being in real danger. It is within human nature to seek out and suffer unpleasant feelings – but in small doses, allowing us to flirt with danger and experience the emotional rush— free of real consequences.[[ii]]   

        Historically, Halloween is believed to have originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. This ancient community, which lived 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead collided. 

On October 31, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and damage their crops. They built huge sacred bonfires, where they burned crops and sacrificed animals to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Before the festivities began, they extinguished their hearth fires at home. When the celebration was over, they re-lit them with flames from the sacred, ceremonial bonfire to help protect themselves during the coming winter.

        By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and blended Christian ceremonies with older pagan rites. In 1,000 A.D., the Catholic church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or All-hallows/All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day), absorbing the Celtic traditions of Samhain, with bonfires and masquerades. This became All-Hallows Eve, and the word eventually compressed into Halloween.[[iii]]During this time, new rituals sprang up and were theforerunners to trick-or-treat, a custom not loved universally by parents in today’s world.

        In Medieval England, on All Hallows Eve, poor people would visit the homes of wealthy families to receive soul cakes. The custom was called souling because “Little pastries were given in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the dead relatives.” [[iv]]  In Scotland and Ireland, young people disguised themselves by dressing in costume, and accepting offerings from households in return for singing, reciting poetry, telling jokes, or performing a trick before receiving their treat.[[v]]

        In the U.S., the custom of trick-or-treating became a staple of the American Halloween celebrations after WW II, when sugar rationing ended. In 1952, Walt Disney released the first Trick-or-Treat cartoon movie, starring Donald Duck, which helped solidify Halloween’s celebration in American culture.

        Whatever one feels about the practice of trick-or-treating, there is another tradition that almost everyone looks forward to. Halloween is a fine time to revisit our beloved and deliciously scary, creepy stories and find new ones. Who can resist the urge to vicariously experience, without consequence, the chills, thrills, and fright of ghost stories and strange happenings? 

Among thousands of spooky tales are Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories, ranging from the unnerving appearance of ghosts in All Souls’, who appear at Sara Clayburn’s house to wreak havoc for one night. There is a spirit in The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, leaving the reader to wonder if the bell rang to warn of something terrible happening, or was it the narrator’s imagination? 

 Then there’s the frightful notion of not recognizing a being from the afterlife in Afterwards when a husband disappears – and only at the end does the bereft wife understand that the ghost of someone dead had visited. 

Often, the tales of crime by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imply something supernatural, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, about a mysterious death and a young woman’s fear that her own was approaching. And, of course, his classic The Hound of the Baskervilles can be read repeatedly and still maintain its emotional impact. Just the thought of the hound braying on the moor raises goosebumps. 

There is hardly room to mention every author whose work has become a Halloween special. Among the scariest are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which an occult scholar and his searchers seek evidence of hauntings and get more than they bargained for.

And the scariest, ever, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Again, the author creates a terrifying picture of two dead servants returning and possessing the bodies of two young children, a brother, and sister. Again, the author leaves the reader questioning whether or not the events and their interpretations are from the nanny’s imagination, or are they real? Only Henry James knew for sure—or did he?

So, on All Hallow’s Eve, when you’re done with your traditions, trick-or-treating – whether ringing doorbells or handing out safely wrapped candies set the mood. Darken the house, keep a reading lamp bright to illuminate the pages and curl up with a hot chocolate or something more robust and let yourself be immersed in the netherworld and allow yourself to be scared.

BOO!


                              [i] https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/consumers-anticipate-new-ways-to-celebrate-halloween-despite-covid-19  10/23/20

[ii] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3860638/The-science-Halloween-Researchers-reveal-safe-gross-appeal-spooky-celebration.html 10/22/20

[iii] https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween 10/21/20

[iv] Ibid

 [v] Ibid

ART:

Image OF HANDS ON GLASS  by Sergey Gricanov from Pixabay 

Image  SETTING THE MOOD by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay 

Image of GHOST WOMAN  by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay 

Image OF ESTATE FOR HOUND by Basil Smith from Pixabay