If You Know Why…

By Helen Currie Foster

I don’t know where you are on this infernally cold day, but my husband and I have refugee’d to my sister’s place in Austin because her neighborhood has underground utilities. Yes, the underground power lines mean she’s thumbing her nose at all the ice hanging from every tree, shrub and bush.

In contrast, our sixty-year old abode in Dripping Springs is all electric. Rainwater system with a pump. Electric heat. Oh, sure, a fireplace and a charcoal grill. But the trees hang heavy with the ice…all along our dirt road the frozen cedars clutch the single power line.

So we flung bales of hay to the burros, dripped the faucets, fed the birds, hung a worklamp over the faucet to the washing machine, and left.We crept down Fitzhugh at fifteen miles an hour, flashers on. Hills that we ignore suddenly loomed large ahead of us. But we slithered up and down to my sister’s.

Which is where we wound up watching David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed by Spike Lee. Okay, the Talking Heads got no attention from me––they seemed too urban and inward back in the day when I was living on tunes from Emmylou, Guy Clark, The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons. Tender harmonies, accessible. Relatable. Now there’s a word. Maybe. When did it pop up everywhere? As a positive term, too. Cozy. Approachable. I identified with the characters in those songs. Not so much with David Byrne…he’s not “relatable” but he’s riveting.

Watching David Byrne, singing his disorienting lyrics while moving as one with his variegated carefully chosen ensemble, with their precisely rehearsed exact choreography, reminded me that genius also resides in those we don’t “get.” Those who insist on providing their ownlarge vision of their creation. Those who challenge us (like David Byrne does when he stares at his puzzled and entranced audience). Who make us look at their unique and unfamiliar vision and…buy into it.

Maybe now you’re also recalling how Amanda Gorman created her own new vision at Biden’s inauguration: her smile, her high and formal hair, her slender hands waving in the air, almost forming the words as she spoke her poem. A new way to say a poem, be her own poem, draw us forward into her poem.

So after watching American Utopia I’m thinking of artists who refuse to get stuck in their genre but keep moving ahead of us down the road, hoping we’ll “get it” sooner or later, while remaining––regardless––determined to achieve their vision.

Two from the last century come to mind. First, Picasso. He refusedto get stuck in a rose period, a blue period. Just as we’d learned to love his line drawings of figures from myth or commedia dell’arte, we found ourselves facing guitar collages and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, large Cretan eyes in all the wrong places. If he’d lived forever he’d still be shocking us.

Second, Virginia Woolf. She never wrote the same novel twice. She focused on that unique human trait, individual consciousness, and the mystery of our occasional interconnection. Her compulsive drive in her novels to capture life––moments of revelation––emerged in differentstructures. Orlando. The Waves. The “Time Passes” scene in my lifetimefavorite, To the Lighthouse; also, the incredibly satisfying moment whenLily Briscoe, the spinster amateur artist, cautiously applies a final brushstroke to her painting and senses its rightness. Lily has “had her vision.” In Woolf’s last effort, Between The Acts, she overlays the battle of the sexes, the gulf (occasionally bridged) between a husband and wife, on the annual village pageant unfolding at the ancient barn at their country house where all the villagers participate in a precis of English history.

Woolf was severely criticized, and deeply wounded, by a then-dominant critic, Desmond McCarthy. He sneered, “Of the drama of the will in action out of which stories are made …she knows nothing. What an extraordinary, what a fatal limitation…in a novelist!”

But hey, does anyone read Desmond McCarthy anymore? Take comfort, Virginia. You still challenge, you still astound us.

What does this have to do with mystery writers? Do such lofty goals––never becoming too formulaic or overly predictable––apply to mystery writers? Well, a mystery must have––mystery! Which means a writer can’t get stuck doing the same things over and over. Hence mystery writers do somersaults to stay fresh. Point of view? Proseoptions? Choice of detective(s)?

Consider point of view. Think of Reginald Hill’s police inspectors Dalziel and Pascoe: sometimes one handles the case, sometimes the other. But in Arms and the Woman, Hill gave the point of view to Pascoe’s acerbic wife Ellie. Dorothy Sayers shifted point of view from detective Peter Wimsey’s manservant Bunter, to his love interest Harriet,to his Scotland Yard brother-in-law, Charles. Tony Hillerman uses a mixin his Leaphorn and Chee novels. The Dark Wind begins with omniscience: in chapter one we, along with “the Flute Clan boy,” and fellow Hopi kiva members, are the first to see the body of a Navajo, lying in the middle of the path where the kiva members are transporting sacred spruce branches for a desperately needed rain dance. In chapter two point of view shifts to the pilot of a night flight in the desert. Only inchapter three are we finally in the head of Navajo policeman Jim Chee. But the first two chapters set up the murder and create the powerful desert setting in which Chee operates.

Mystery writers also play with prose. Letters back and forth? Diary excerpts? Dorothy Sayers used both in Busman’s Honeymoon where she advances the plot and setting through the letters and diaries of the detective’s mother and manservant, as well as those of catty London socialites. (As you were about to mention, using such sources reveals the diarist’s/correspondent’s point of view too.) Emails? Reginald Hill used those as Dalziel’s source of information, when Dalziel’s confined to his hospital bed in A Cure for All Diseases. He even copied arial typeface for the emails (which actually I found quite irritating).

As mystery readers we settle comfortably into our favorite chairs fully expecting a murder. Yet sometimes the author teases the reader, providing comedy, but no murder, or granting us a body, but denying us a murderer. Georges Simenon occasionally had the indefatigable Inspector Maigret conclude that in fact there’d been death but no crime, as in The Late Monsieur Gallet. And what about the famous novelist’s death upstairs in the movie Knives Out?

For a real treat, take yourself back to 1913, and E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. No spoilers, but the oh-so-clever, so artistic, so fluent, so utterly charming detective…screws up his solution. I won’t tell you how many times, I just recommend it as another mystery twist.

Sometimes the author puts the reader to work, possibly too hard. Inher Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries Eleanor Catton uses many narrators, some unreliable, leaving the reader to make leaps of logic as to which death(s) were murder, and if so, who the murderer might be. Which, admittedly, is a great deal like life itself: we’re always trying to explain events without having enough information.


In my Ghost Next Door a murder occurs and is solved. But characters also debate a long-ago death: was it, or was it not, a murder?I’m now finishing the last chapters in my seventh Alice MacDonald Greer murder mystery. Again the point of view belongs to Alice; the bigquestion she faces is finding the motive. Alice operates on the premise that “If you know why, you know who.” We’re at the point where she hasn’t figured out why.

I’ll keep you posted.

I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark TwainFollowing the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

****

Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

****

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and in Kaye George’s Day of the Dark. She is co-author with Manning Wolfe of the novella Stabbed. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

MURDER, MAYHEM, CRIME AND THE GRANDE DAMES OF MYSTERY

                                                                                         By Francine Paino

Overall, fiction provides a brief respite from the realities in our lives. In those few precious hours of distraction, we shut off the conscious minds’ worries and efforts to find solutions to problems or imagining worst-case scenarios. In the face of real-life crises, the subconscious needs to see an issue with fresh eyes and a different perspective, perhaps even finding a new approach. It seems that the most popular category for that escape in the U.S., as revealed by the Nielson Bookscan Services, is the mystery/thriller/crime novels, which beat all others by two to one. But if we seek to escape from real-life problems, why is this genre more popular than romance or comedy? 

Explanations are offered everywhere, even in psychology periodical. One reason for the popularity of murder, mayhem, and crime is that they allow a safe way to immerse oneself in high drama without the destructive aftermath touching the reader in reality. Another is that it is exciting to be emotionally flung about as if on an amusement park ride. Then there is the experience of entering the mind of the criminal—oh, horror—something we don’t get to see in real life—at least not before the evil deed is done. Readers can also figure out, see or at least suspect what will happen before it happens, and hopefully, by the end, there is the satisfaction of Yes. Makes sense. It was in the clues all along. Most often, that is not the case in life. These reasons help explain why this genre is the most popular, but why are stories with elderly sleuths so well-liked?

Unlike the many Mediterranean, Native American Indian, and Asian cultures, and despite the growing economic difficulties and stresses on those societies’ families, their elderly are respected; their knowledge and wisdom are put to good use, whereas in the U.S., youth has become a preoccupation. It has the mind of younger people so entrapped in worrying about maintaining youthful looks that they often miss the grace, wisdom, and knowledge acquired with age and experience.

 Aging in a culture that puts enormous emphasis on being young or appearing to be youthful creates a constant struggle for those susceptible to that fetish, and yet—interest in stories employing older people in mysteries is widespread.

 In mystery fiction, older protagonists have already made the mistakes that younger detectives haven’t yet experienced. Senior detectives, whether professional or amateur, see the world through more experienced and seasoned eyes. Thus, their mistakes are different and perhaps even more interesting. 

Neha Patel, writing for Book Riot, suggests several mystery thriller books starring older women, starting with the Grande Dame of Mystery, Miss Marple, who at age 70 solved the first of her 13 mysteries in Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie.  

Before She Was Helen, by Caroline B. Cooney, explores the dangers of confronting your own past life.

In Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, the sleuth is 84-years-old, and in Partners In Crime, by Gallagher Gray, Lil is a feisty woman of 84, who considers herself “84-years-young,” and has a love of playing detective and Bloody Marys. (My kinda-gal!) 

A metaphysical mystery/thriller, Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, has a 72-year-old widow coming across a haunting. The only clue is a note saying, “Her name was Magda.”

Writing for Early Bird Books, Paul Wargelin offers a list of feisty, intelligent, and frequently underestimated amateur sleuths over the age of 60, beginning with Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth, about a retired governess. Written two years before Agatha Christie’s first Miss Marple novel, Ms. Wentworth went on to write 32 Miss Silver mysteries.  

In Tish Plays the Game, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Tish Carberry isn’t suited for retirement activities, preferring to use her idle hands and mind to solve mysteries.

Stephanie Matteson’s Murder at the Spa introduces Charlotte Graham, a successful actress who, after four-decades of screen and stage success, takes on the role of a sleuth in real life.  

“Does age really bring wisdom?” asks Rochelle Melander, writing that “Recent studies affirm this adage. Older adults…recover quickly after making a mistake and use their brains more efficiently than younger adults.” In Melander’s article Crime Fiction: Savvy Sleuths Over 50, she offers some fascinating crime stories featuring elderly sleuths.

In Celine, by Peter Heller, Celine is an artist and P.I. in her late 60s, and in Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman, a fifty-nine-year-old, ex-FBI agent is haunted by the unsolved murder of her protégé. After an attempt on her life, she feels the need to unearth the truth. 

             Not to be accused of gender discrimination, here are two books starring elderly gentlemen. Don’t Ever Get Old, by Daniel Friedman, about an 87-year-old retired Memphis police officer, Buck Schatz, who learns that a Nazi officer who’d tortured him might still be alive with a stash of hidden gold. He teams up with his grandson, and together, they get more than they bargained for.

Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara, is set in L.A. and Hiroshima. Japanese-American gardener Mas Arai, age 69, is hiding a secret. He finds himself facing bachi—the spirit of retribution when a stranger shows up asking about his old gambling buddy Joji Haneda. Joji is murdered, and Mas must try to make things right.

Perhaps one of the qualities that fascinate readers, and they may not even realize it, is that often the elderly almost disappear, even standing in plain sight. They are overlooked, leaving them free to move about, observe, listen, eavesdrop, and study circumstances without anyone even realizing what they’re doing. 

These, and many other senior Grande Dames and Grands Hommes of mystery, shows how being older does not mean life stops. There is still inquisitiveness, a desire for adventure, and the need to use one’s brain. There are still mysteries and crimes to be solved—and they do it with humor, grace, and aplomb.

Grab a bunch and enjoy!

For more on the subject of older sleuths, go to:
Wargelin, Paul. 16 Cozy Mysteries Starring Female Detectives http://earlybirdbooks.com/16-cozy-mysteries-starring-female-detectives 1/17/21
Patel, Neha, 10 Mystery and Thriller Books Starring Older Women. http://bookriot.com/mystery-and-thriller-books-starring-older-women/ 1/17/21
Melander, Rochelle. Crime Fiction: Savvy Sleuths Over 50. http://www.nextavenue.org/crime-fiction-savvy-sleuths-over-50 1/16/21
Evans, David. Do you Love Murder Mysteries? You’re Not Alone. Here’s Why. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/can-t-we-all-just-get-along/201904/do-you-love-murder-mysteries-youre-not-alone-heres-why  1/16/21
Bourbon, Melissa. Why Do We Enjoy Mysteries So Much? https://melissabourbon.com/for-writers/why-do-we-enjoy-mysteries-so-much/#:~:text=We%20learn%20about%20how%20others,world%20that’s%20captivated%20our%20imagination 1/17/21.

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

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