Guest Blogger Janet Christian

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Today’s guest blogger is Janet Christian, author of the Marianna Morgan PI murder mystery series (she’s working on book two at this time) and the soon to be published Virgilante paranormal mystery. She also has a dystopian science fiction novel, Born Rich, which she’s expanding into an epic, so it’s currently not for sale.

Janet served as 2003 President of the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime in Austin, and became a published author in 2012. She also maintains an author’s blog.

Janet and her husband Eric Marsh live on a 100 acre ranch near Lockhart, TX – 30 miles south of Austin. They have four goofy dogs, an ever-changing population of cats (usually around 10), and a small herd of  spotted-wool Jacob sheep. When she isn’t writing, Janet creates pottery art pieces in her combination pottery studio and tiki bar.

Janet, welcome to AMW!

Three steps to research success

I was inspired to write this article after conversations with several writers who said they just wanted to write, and factual details weren’t that important to readers, anyway. The writers were willing to do limited online research, but had no inclination to talk to experts or visit locations. Research can certainly either be the bane or the joy of writing, regardless of genre or time period of the story. But research is always important, so why not find ways to make it work in your favor, and perhaps to even be enjoyable.

I understand that we writers tend to be a solitary bunch, but please make the effort to do thorough research beyond just surfing the web. You’ll be happy that you did. And so will your readers. Besides, at least to me, one of the joys of writing is learning all those amazing and cool facts and bits of trivia.

Here are three tips to help ensure your research is thorough, useful, and hopefully fun to acquire.

1. Surf the web

Google and other seSurfing the Webarch tools are amazingly complete storehouses of information, but searching can be tricky. If you want to know what year an event occurred, one search usually provides the answer. But if your goal is more esoteric, it can take dozens of searches, tweaking the keywords each time, before you find the information you seek.

Like most writers, I’ve attempted searches for some pretty obscure facts. And once recently my search resulted in the message “No results found.” I’m both simultaneously tickled and frightened that I “broke” Google. Maybe I need to rethink that plot twist.

While search tools are powerful, and can provide a world of search results, you should not count on it as your sole research tool. We all know the internet is chock full of not-quite-true “facts” and information. But the biggest reason is because of the amount of results one search provides. It can be overwhelming to sift out the clutter and get to the specific facts you seek. You can also find search results that directly contradict each other. (Try searching “are vaccines safe” or “is global warming real” for proof of just how contradictory results can be.)

Use a search tool as a springboard for where to go next. For my first novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, I wanted my protagonist, Private Investigator Marianna Morgan, to search for a stolen Brown Bess musket. In fact, my novel was inspired by a newspaper article about a long-lost Brown Bess being donated to the Alamo. Online searches gave me many facts about the musket, including images of its wooden stock and unusual triangular, cross-section bayonet. But there were many variations of the musket. And nothing online told me what condition it would be in after having been buried for thirty-five years. This is the point in research where it’s good to move on to step 2.

2. Contact an expert

Talk to expertsI was fortunate in the case of my Brown Bess research that my sister has a business acquaintance with Dr. Richard Bruce Winders, Historian and Curator of the Alamo. I was granted an appointment with Dr. Winders and had the privilege of holding the actual Brown Bess mentioned in the article that inspired my murder mystery. Dr. Winders also described in detail how I could safely hide one in my story.

But don’t let your lack of a direct or indirect relationship with an expert deter you. When I needed to research how the abduction of a child would have been handled in an unincorporated area near San Antonio in the days before 911 emergency service existed, I called Chief Don Davis, who was the Police Chief of Terrell Hills, Texas at the time I was writing. He was more than happy to see me. The accuracy and detail I included in my novel were a direct result of Chief Davis’s informative and helpful answers.

I’ve interviewed many other experts as well, covering topics as diverse as reptile exhibits, how many UPS drivers are assigned to a given geographic area, vintage Mustangs, and what would happen to a koi pond if a decomposing body were buried beneath the rubber liner. Some experts I met in person, others I talked to on the phone. I recommend face-to-face where possible, but phone calls are a perfectly acceptable alternative. I’ve yet to contact an expert who wasn’t happy to help, and all patiently answered my many questions. I always make sure to thank them in the back of the book and send them a signed copy once it’s published.

Whether you’re writing contemporary or historical mysteries, and regardless of whether they’re cozies or hard-boiled, there’s always an expert who can provide those gems of detail that really bring a story to life. And bringing reality and life to a story is where the third tip in research comes in.

3. On site visits

Triton, MN, September 28,2010--Rich Barto, an Small Business Administration (SBA) Construction Analyst inspects a home that was damaged when the Zumbro River overflowed its banks. FEMA, the SBA and the State of Minnesota are conducting damage assessment to determine if the state is eligible for federal assistance. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

In addition to my expert contacts on reptile exhibits, I visited the Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo near San Antonio. It was an hour and a half drive, but well worth it. Because of that visit, I was able to add multiple sensory experiences to the scene where Marianna visits a roadside reptile exhibit while tracking the bad guy. I believe my experiencing the assault of smells, sounds, and sights in person gave the scene in my novel a realism I could not have created any other way.

An actual on-site visit may not always be practical, but when it is, take advantage. If you’re writing a mystery that takes place in London, unless you have an extensive travel budget, you may not be able to visit. And if your story is set in 1800s London, a visit may not be all that useful, anyway. But sometimes there are other ways to accomplish a sense of “being there.” And even those alternatives can be invaluable.

Want a feel for Victorian England? Visit the largest Renaissance Faire you can find within a reasonable drive. Setting your charming cozy in a small town populated by quirky characters? Visit two or three cool small towns.

We’ve likely all read stories where it was clear the author published without doing any research. Even little mistakes can throw a reader out of a story. Did a football fan buy your mystery because it involves a murder during a Super Bowl? You can bet they’ll write a scathing review if you set the story in 1966 (the first Super Bowl was in 1967), or even if you describe the wrong concession foods. But if you’ve done your online research, talked to a football expert, and actually attended a football game (even a high school game, especially in Texas, will give you the sense of the crowd’s excitement and behavior), your story will “ring true” and that football fan will love it and look forward to buying your next book.

Isn’t at least one of our ultimate goals to have readers who love our books and can’t wait for each new release? Research can be one of the biggest keys to helping that happen.

 

Thanks Janet! You can find more of her writing at www.janetchristian.com

A Christmas Pomodori

River Bluff Writers' Retreat 020Star Date: December 13, 2014

It all started with a weekend retreat. Don’t mysteries always start  like that? (Well, some of them.)

It’s like the beginning of a typical forties noir film. Think of a battered private dick, his face wrapped in bandages, trapped in a blindingly bright spotlight at the Hollywood police station. All in black and white with lots of shadows. The police want to know about a murder. When he starts talking, the scene dissolves into a flashback.

Except in my case, everything was in color, in the twenty-first century, and by the San Marcos River in Central Texas–not Hollywood.

What on earth are you talking about? I hear someone mutter. Why, I’m flashing back to how I wrote my fast-paced, hard-pulsing, heart-stopping crime melodrama, Holly Through the Heart, a live radio play done in person for an enthusiastic (I hope) audience (captive) of Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas members.

I had come up with a daring (hare-brained) scheme in September. Why not have an old-fashioned live radio murder mystery play for our Christmas party on December 14? Then I proceeded to ask (beg, cajole) people to be in the cast. I had everything set up. But there was just a tiny, wee problem.

I was having trouble with the play itself. As in, writing it. There were three lovely paragraphs, almost a whole first page done. It was very promising. But I was stuck.

To myself, I said, “Self, you have asked all these folks to be in your play, and we are going to have to rehearse before the show debuts on December 14, so what are you going to do?”

Then fellow AMW critique partner Kathy Waller said we should have a writing retreat the first weekend in October, so we did, at a cabin on the San Marcos River. The cabin was lovely and rustic, surrounded by giant pecan trees and nestled in rural obscurity—except for the eleventy-million trucks hauling monster barbecue smokers in and out of the property next door. There was a barbecue cooking contest being held in close proximity to our cabin on Friday and Saturday. I thought there would be lots of noise and craziness going on next door, but perhaps we might be invited over to partake of delicious delicacies.

But no. There was no offer of succulent meat, but the noise level was kept to a decorous level down by the river. So I couldn’t use loud music and barbecue overdose to excuse my almost nonexistent radio play.

What did I do, you might ask. On Friday night, we went to the Sac ’n Pac on the highway and purchased delicious burgers for our supper. Then we sat around and talked and talked and talked and finally went to sleep.

On Saturday, some troublemaker brought up the fact that we were technically on a writing retreat and that maybe we should write. If I remember correctly, fellow AMW critique partner Valerie Chandler said we should use the Pomodoro technique to write something. We limbered up our laptops and did the Pomodoro. What is the Pomodoro, you may ask? Here’s the word from Wikipedia:

“The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “pomodori”, the plural of the Italian word pomodoro for “tomato.” The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.” Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

I knew I was not motivated. But I sat there, hands poised over the keyboard, the timer went off, and I pounded away for twenty-five minutes. Took a break and then pounded for another twenty-five minutes.

And guess what?

I wrote the whole script.

That Saturday night, after we had gone back to the Sac ’n Pac to get pizza for dinner, we sat around and talked and talked and talked some more. One of the subjects we covered was my anguish over my current book plot. It needed help. So we all brainstormed, lying on couches, eating Goldfish (the baked cheese kind) and cookies and solved my plot problem.

That’s my story, coppers, and no matter how much you grill me, I won’t change my tune. That’s how it all went down.

So now, as I write this blog post on the evening of December 13, waiting for my pot roast to get almost done before I put in the potatoes (battered private dicks sometimes cook), and anticipating putting on the play tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Book Spot in Round Rock, I think it’s going to be great.

We’ve rehearsed, given feedback, and worked on sound effects. I’ve had directorial angst, but I feel good about the whole thing.

Kudos to Kathy for setting up the writing retreat and for Valerie’s and Kathy’s help with Pomodoro sprints and book plot brainstorming.

Tomorrow Holly Through the Heart has its debut performance far from Broadway, at the Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas. But the journey begins with a single Pomodori, does it not?

I only wish, Valerie, that you had not gotten me addicted to Goldfish, but then artists must suffer, I suppose.

Star Date: December 14, 2014

Book Spot Dec. 14 SINC 028

From left to right: Alex Ferraro, Kathy Waller, David Ciambrone, Gale Albright, and Valerie Chandler, cast of Holly Through the Heart, an old-time radio mystery drama performed live at its debut at the Book Spot on December 14, in Round Rock, TexasBook Spot Dec. 14 SINC 030A  cookie script of Holly Through the Heart, created by culinary genius Valerie Chandler.

By Gale Albright

When Books Were Love

by Gale Albright

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Aunt Marjorie Nell was a big fan of mine.

That’s why I figure she may have embellished stories about my alleged brilliance when I was a tot. She taught me to read when I was just three years old, because I told her “I want to read like you do, Jaumie.”

She was thirteen years old when I was born and she spent every minute away from school taking care of me. She was the only one I allowed to wash my hair (without squalling), and apparently, teach me to read.

I don’t know if I was really that young when I learned to read. I think Aunt Marjorie gave me too much credit, but I learned early and fast. I loved words. All kinds of words. I talked them, sang them, heard them on the radio. I found them in conversations and I found them in books.

Books were magic. Books were love. Books meant I was sitting on Jaumie’s lap while she read to me with her gentle East Texas twang. They took me to magic, foreign places while I was cuddled and safe with my biggest fan.

When I got big enough to read books by myself, I rode my bicycle to the Carnegie Library in Tyler, Texas. I loved the smell of the library. There was a sun-dappled holiness about the place. People spoke in hushed whispers as light streamed through the windows, illuminating the ivy plants perched on the windowsills.

Books—their touch, their smell, their heft–meant I was immersed a safe, happy place where you could fly to the moon; go on adventures with Freddy, the talking pig; witness the struggles of Black Beauty; go on the run with Tom Canty down the mean streets of Tudor London; and travel with Doctor Dolittle.

Fast-forward about a million years or Time Marches On.

My lifetime love affair with books turned me into a true Luddite, scoffing at electronic readers, literally clasping hard copies of books to my heaving bosom, filled with the sweetness of self-righteous indignation. I swore, repeatedly, that never would any &%$*# electronic reading device darken my door (you get my drift).

Until I listened to Mindy Reed speak about containers versus content.

Ms. Reed was the featured speaker at the June 8 Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas program on current publishing trends. The meeting place was Recycled Reads, a part of the Austin Public Library. Recycled Reads keeps books and other materials out of landfills once libraries have weeded them from their shelves. It is part of Austin’s Zero Waste Initiative.IMG_3097

Ms. Reed, Recycled Reads manager, librarian, editor, and co-proprietor of The Authors’ Assistant, said readers have had a “romance with the book. There’s a romantic connection with books–we love them. But you can’t love all of the many donations of bestsellers that go out of style.”

The store recycles between twelve and fifteen tons of material a month. It has recycled 865 tons in the six years since its inception. How, you may ask, do we get so many recycled books?

According to Ms. Read, look to the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers strong-arm book stores to pre-order books. The list is based on the numbers of pre-orders sent out to stores. Some are sold. Many others are remaindered, resulting in a colossal waste of resources. These publishing practices make a negative impact on the environment. It is a bad, old-fashioned distribution mode for books

Ms. Read pointed to a display of plastic cups, glasses, coffee cups, etc. assembled on a table in front of the audience. “If you are thirsty, you want water. You don’t care if you get it from a fountain, bottle, or glass. They all contain water that will quench your thirst. Think of that when you talk about the rise of the digital age in publishing. Does all of that need to be put in this type of container? It’s about content as opposed to container.”

I do have a romance with the book. The sight, feel, and smell of books trigger endorphins, for all I know. I associate them with escape, peace, and happiness.

E-readers don’t exercise that special magic, but they do have what kept me coming back to books all those years ago. The stories. Or, as Mindy said, content versus container.

I thought I would never give in, but I have decided (one of these days soon) to buy an e-reader. Can e-books help save the planet by making less waste for us to pour into landfills? Yes. Is that important? Yes.

I don’t feel romantic about e-readers, but, when you’re thirsty, do you care if you drink your water from a crystal goblet, bucket, dipper, or paper cup? The first priority is to get some water. Or some words.

If using e-readers will help save the planet, I can do my part by giving back some love to the universe instead of extra trash.

The Halls of Mystery

by Gale Albright

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The April 13 Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas program will feature “The Halls of Mystery” with authors Joan Upton Hall and Russ Hall. They will present mini-workshops on everything you ever wanted to know about writing. Bring your questions! Be ready to listen, take notes, and interact. It should be a lively meeting.

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Joan and Russ, who have a number of books under their belts, have always been more than happy to help fledgling writers learn the craft of writing. They will share their personal experiences on getting published and keeping the right mental attitude. Both have received Sage Awards from the Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation. The award is given to an author who demonstrates an outstanding spirit of service in mentoring, sharing and leading others in the mystery writing community.rx book doctor

A former English teacher, Joan Upton Hall is an author, editor, writing instructor and speaker. Her books run from historical nonfiction to urban fantasy and the paranormal. She offers sample chapters and more on her website. Her books include The Shadow of Excalibur, Dream Shifters, Just Visitin’ Old Texas Jails, and RX for Your Writing Ills. http://joanuptonhall.com/home

Russ Hall

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Russ Hall has had fifteen novels published, including: The Blue-Eyed Indian, Wildcat Did Growl, Island, No Murder Before its Time, Goodbye She Lied, Talon’s Grip, Bones of the Rain, and South Austin Vampire. He has also co-authored (as well as ghost written) numerous non-fiction books. Russ is a frequent mentor and judge for writing organizations. In 1996 he won the Nancy Pickard Mystery Fiction Award for short fiction. http://www.russhall.com/russ hall bk2

“The Halls of Mystery” program starts at 2 p.m., Recycled Reads at 5335 Burnet Road in Austin, TX.