The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.
And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.
My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas. As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.
Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!
Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.
Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.
Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.
So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.
If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!
For today’s blog post I’m interviewing writer Bonnar Spring. Her debut book, Toward The Light, has just been released and it’s already receiving great reviews!
VPC– Hello, Bonnar! First things first. Congratulations of your debut novel! And secondly, I’ve heard that you were raised in Texas. Where are you from? (As a Texan I’m obligated to ask that question. LOL)
Bonnar: I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, where my dad’s family has lived forever. He was a chemical engineer and so was his father. Until I was a teenager, I though all dads were engineers who worked at the refineries!
VPC– That’s so cute. It’s funny how our world views are formed when we’re young. So tell me about the book. It sounds exciting!
Bonnar– Luz Concepcion returns to Guatemala to murder Martin Benavides, the man who destroyed her family. Benavides rose from guerrilla leader to president, and now runs a major drug network. Assisted by the CIA, who has its own reasons for eliminating him, Luz gets a job as nanny to Benavides’ grandson, Cesar. Her plans unravel when she gets caught up in the world of drug traffickers and revolutionaries and falls in love with an expat who keeps as many secrets as she does—and with Cesar, a lonely boy whose world will be ripped apart if Luz succeeds in her mission.
VPC- Everyone asks authors this question, how did you get the idea for the story?
Bonnar: Yeah 🙂 . . . well, in my case, it’s sorta convoluted. Here’s the short version to give the idea and then, I hope, conclude before your readers’ eyes glaze over: Imagine a cocktail party years ago when the Middle East was in turmoil. (Okay, when is it not!) But this happened when a certain dictator was pushing all our buttons, and the conversation turned to a question much on our minds at the time of when/if was it acceptable to kill someone evil, someone who was the leader of another country (Yeah, could’ve been ripped right from 2020 headlines!).
Questions swirled: If you could you do something like that, should you? It started to feel like a personal, moral compass moment: What would I do? And then—how would I make decisions if I was in a situation where all my choices going forward were bad choices?
I’ve worked for many years with refugees and immigrants. In that time, I’ve heard countless stories about hardship, war, fear, family, and escape. I began to think about framing the idea as a story.
I know nothing more than I read in the news about the Middle East, so I transposed the setting to Central America, where I’ve often traveled. It has a similarly tumultuous history of strongmen, violent political factions, corruption, and drugs. The settings in Toward the Light are fictionalized versions of real places in Guatemala.
VPC– I’ve read that you’ve received some nice reactions to the book. It was on the list of Apple Books “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” list! I was also impressed that Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron have given it their stamp of approval. Brava!
Bonnar– You know, people say all the time how generous the writing community is. Hank’s and Hallie’s willingness to read the ARC and write a blurb are good examples. I’d met them a few times at MWA events, but it’s not like we were buddies or anything. So I emailed and asked – and both said yes. In fact, I think I sent out about 12 emails in total asking for early readers to write blurbs. Of those, all but 2 or 3 wrote back. A couple of authors were busy with life/books and begged off. The others, including several authors whose books I’d read and enjoyed but never corresponding with, also agreed.
Apple’s “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” – now that was a complete delightful surprise!
VPC– So now that it’s been out for about a month and you’ve been at book events, what has it been like? Any surprises? Anything you’ve learned? Any advice for other writers when they go on tour?
Bonnar– Setting up book events is still a little scary, but once I get to a bookstore or library and start talking, signings have been more fun than I expected. I’m not a very outgoing human. I’ve taught at the college level for many years, though, and have a ‘teacher’ persona I can dredge up when necessary. I was initially worried that wouldn’t happen with book stuff, because these events are all about my story, my characters, and me in a much different way than standing in front of a class and talking about gerunds.
Questions that have surprised me so far: Have you ever been to Guatemala? (Seriously? The answer is yes—I don’t know how else I’d have the nerve to write about it.)
And: How much money do you make? (I dodge that one/ The answer is “probably not much,” but I say, “I won’t know anything for months!”)
VPC- So I’ve heard that you’ve been very busy with more writing. You’ve written two more novels?
Bonnar– Yes, I have two other completed mss. One is another international thriller and the other is a mystery. Because I revise endlessly, it will be a while before either is ready to send out into the world.
VPC– Any other advice for writers of thrillers and mysteries?
Bonnar– Being asked to give advice when I’m still so new at this makes me smile. I learned early on what works for one person doesn’t necessarily fit all sizes!
That said, careful editing was invaluable for me in landing an agent and then a book deal. As I said a minute ago, revision is crucial to polishing a ms. It’s not ‘done’ the first time you type The End. Keep at it (put it down for a few months if necessary to return with fresh eyes) until you’ve smoothed out all those not-quite-right spots that nag at you, until the sequence of scenes and transitions is clear, until you’ve eliminated your “filler” words. Btw, my biggest offenders are just, actually, also, and somehow.
VPC– I’m always forgetting about my filler words. Thanks for the reminder! And thank you for granting my request for an interview!
Bonnar– I’ve enjoyed our virtual meeting so much, Valerie!
VPC– And I’d like to tell all of the people in the Austin area that if you’d like to meet Bonnar, she’ll be at Malvern Books on March 4, 7pm-9pm. Come on by and see her and buy her book!
Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.
At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.
Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.
George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in that scene?
George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.
In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?
Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.
We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.
What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.
Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!
Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.
My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.
No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.
Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: Today, the Texas Book Festival opened on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin. Exhibitor tents and food trucks line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— are speaking, signing books, and appearing on panels. There are books for display and for sale.
BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.
Twelve Bullet Books are being introduced. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies. There’s something for mystery lover.
A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:
Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.
By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.
Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m
If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.
And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.
Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Associationfor her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).
…it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…
~ Tracy Chevalier
When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.
I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.
But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.“
Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.
“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.
Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or a family member, and they find fault or don’t mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…
Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.
And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.
Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.
When I reread the first draft, she says,I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.
She found the solution in another contemporary novel:
I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.
The revision was published as Falling Angels, a novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices. It’s exquisite.
I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that.
Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:
I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.
Chevalier doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.
I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft, and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.
And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.
It’s the words on the page that matter.
Confession: I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.
This post appeared on the Austin Mystery Writers blog on September 2, 2015. Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.
*** Image of Hamlet and his father’s ghost by Henry Fuseli via Wikipedia [Public domain] Book covers via Amazon.com
If you’re ever in East Texas I encourage you to check out The Bosslight bookstore. It’s located in historic down town Nacogdoches so it has a perfect vibe of old and new. Old architecture and new books and art! (Check out the brick paved street. I love it.)
Owner Tim Bryant is an author himself, author of the Dutch Curridge series and the Wilkie John Liquorish Westerns. So you know he has a soft spot for books and wants to help authors and readers connect. (I’m currently reading book one of the Liquorish series and it’s great. Good voice and very suspenseful.)
Not only does he have lots of books, but he works hard to connect and support people in the community. He has art from local artisans and hosts book clubs, author events, and even music events too. Did I mention he’s also a musician? Yes! He’s full of talent. So head on over to The Bosslight book store and support a great community! And tell them I said “howdy”!
Austin Mystery Writers Lone Star Lawless event! Kathy Waller, VP Chandler, Laura Oles, George Wier, Alexandra Burt, Scott Montgomery
In November, V. P. Chandler’s story “Kay Chart” appeared on the MysteryPeople blog. V. P. categorizes “Kay Chart” as historical suspense and says it’s “creepy.” (It is.) She’s now revising GILT RIDDEN, a historical mystery set in the Texas Hill Country. She details more of her activities on her blog.
@ the Writer Unboxed UnCon, Salem, MA, November 2016
Patric Sanders is working on HOSTILE HARBORS, the third book in the Wolf Richter series, set in New England and New York City, and on a thriller, LETHAL ENCOUNTERS, set in Germany, the Pacific Northwest, Italy and Hawaii. Patric’s first novel, THE TREASURE OF THE BARRIER REEF, an adventure story set in Australia, was published by Random House-Germany. Inspired by events of his life in East Germany during the Cold War era–he witnessed the construction of the deadly Berlin Wall, served as a draftee at a secret radar station in the People’s Army, was harassed by the secret police Stasi, was fired because he ‘fraternized’ with British engineers, and planned an adventurous escape to breach the Wall–he wrote the first two volumes of the Wolf Richter-series: Chasing the Sun: Action-Packed Cold War Thriller and Singed By The Sun. To learn more about Patric, read V. P. Chandler’s interview with him here.
The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts, November 2016
And–[drum roll!]–the publication of MURDER ON WHEELS (Wildside, 2015), winner of the Killer Nashville 2016 Silver Falchion Award, was such an exhilarating experience that Austin Mystery Writers are now putting the finishing touches on a second manuscript: an anthology comprising stories by four AMW members and eight of their writer friends, tentatively titled TEXAS TOUGH.
So watch this space! When TEXAS TOUGH is ready for reading, you’ll be the first to know.