Interview With Terry Shames: Discussing A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary, and More

Terry Shames

Tonight (June 3) Terry Shames will be at Book People along with SC Perkins. Don’t miss it!

Terry Shames was kind enough to agree to an interview.

VPC: Thank you for letting me interview you. Tell us a little bit about Samuel Craddock and how he came to you as a character.

TS: I attended a workshop where one of the speakers gave an impassioned speech in which she said a writer needs to reach deep inside and find the story that only she can tell. I had heard that line before, but for some reason this time it resonated. I realized that I wanted to write a story set in the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child. I also wanted an older protagonist who was still vital. I was tired of reading crime fiction in which older characters were described in disparaging terms. I was very close to my grandfather, who was active into his “golden” years, and he seemed like the perfect model for my protagonist. So Samuel Craddock was born.
 
VPC: This is number 8 in the series, right? How is this book different from the previous books in the series?

TS: It’s probably a little lighter in tone than most of them. The last book, A Reckoning in the Back Country, was very grim, so I decided to step back a bit in this one—if you can call it light when one of your main recurring character is in harm’s way. In each book I focus on something of current social importance. I had read about the particular vulnerability of seniors going on dating sites—especially their economic vulnerability, and thought it was a perfect setup for Loretta to be in trouble.
 
VPC: Sounds funny and a little scary. I know you can’t share everything, but what can you tell us about your days working for the CIA?

TS: At this point, anything I did at the CIA is long past its “do not tell” date. I’ll share the thing that used to amuse me. I was tasked with reading incoming documents in my section and assigning security labels to them—secret, top secret, “eyes” only, etc. First of all, why they thought a 21-year-old should be in that job was odd. It was more or less boilerplate labeling, based on particular buzz codes, but still there was a certain amount of decision-making to be made. Second, the assessments were strictly set, so that I sometimes had to assign Top Secret Code Word labels to things I had read in the Washington Post the day before. That’s why when current political figures hyperventilate about people leaking top secret documents, I view that problem with a healthy grain of salt.
 
VPC: Thanks, good information to know. What is your typical writing day or week like?

TS:I would really prefer to write first thing in the morning, but I am dedicated to keeping physically fit, so every morning I work out either at the gym or at home. Then I go to my desk and fool around until I get anxious. (Fooling around includes reading the news, answering emails, updating my website, doing promo, checking in on social media etc.) Finally, when I’m antsy enough or when my stern voice kicks in, I get to work. Usually the actual writing time is not that long. But while I’m working, I am very focused and can pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. I think that’s because while I’m “fooling around” my lizard brain is working to figure out what I’m going to write when I finally get to it.
 
VPC: What do you do when you’ve hit a wall and can’t seem to solve a plot problem or when the words don’t want to come to you?

TS: This doesn’t happen often when I’m working on the Samuel
Craddock series. I don’t know why. I can only remember one time, when I was writing Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, when I couldn’t figure out where I was going with a plot, so I just forged ahead without really getting a grip on it. I ended up having to excise and revise a lot of the last 20,000 words because I went on a tangent that didn’t work out. The book I’m working on now is much more difficult. I hit places where I simply don’t know what should happen next. When that happens, sometimes I will brainstorm, which consists of quickly writing down ten possible things that can happen. This usually gives me at least one idea. And sometimes I just write blather. What I mean is that I set up a conversation or do a lot of description that may not necessarily end up in the book but just gives me a sense of where everybody is in the book and what they’re up to. And one other thing I do is really think about what I want to accomplish, not just in the scene but in the book as a whole. That can help. And then….there’s the old, “write anything. ANYTHING. But just get some words down.” That can actually be very freeing.
 
VPC: What do you co to blow off steam?

TS: Exercise helps. But I also rant on Facebook, write letters to the NY Times or to members of Congress. I drink. I love to cook, so cooking a meal can feel very freeing. I love to watch basketball. I love to hang out with friends.
 
VPC: I’ve read some of your pieces in the NY Times and I was impressed! I understand that you lived in Italy for a while. What can you tell us about your time there? What was your favorite thing about your experience?

TS: We lived there in the early 1990s. My husband was doing some research with a scientist in Padua. We decided it would be fun to live in Florence while their collaboration was going on. It was a wonderful experience. I loved the art, the people, the beautiful countryside. We had great plans to see a lot of Italy, but mostly we took an opportunity to really get to know Florence. I hiked, went on excursions in the Chianti, explored in depth. Our son went to the fourth grade and part of fifth grade there, in an international school, so we met people from all over the world, and loved every minutes of it. When we go back on visits, I feel as if I’ve gone home.

VPC: Sounds wonderful!
Thank you so much for doing this interview. I hope that we’ve introduced some new people to you and your work.

For more information about Terry Shames and her books, you can follow her at https://www.terryshames.com

Interview With AMW Member Laura Oles

In continuing my series of interviews of fellow members of AMW, I’d like to introduce you to Laura Oles.

Austin Mystery Writer Laura Oles

VPC- Welcome, Laura! Tell us a little about your background.

LO- I grew up in an Air Force family and moved a number of times growing up.   I graduated from Texas State and met my husband while I was in college. His parents were both professional photographers and entrepreneurs who introduced me to the world of photography. At the time, I didn’t know an f/stop from a bus stop, but I loved the industry almost immediately. We were working in the time of early digital photography and had built a business that did some pretty cool things in that space. I also started writing for digital photography magazines—both consumer and trade— and did that for about fifteen years. Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met work behind the camera. It remains my first love, although I detest having my photo taken. Ask anyone—the camera comes out and I duck behind a tree.   If awkward smiling were an Olympic sport, I would bring home the gold.

LRO-sanfran

Laura hiding from the camera.

VPC- I can vouch for that, readers. It’s true! So you’ve had some success with publishing nonfiction, why are you interested in writing fiction?

LO- Yes, I wrote Digital Photography for Busy Women back in 2005 and was so happy to see the reception it received in the photography field. Technology books become obsolete pretty quickly, so while it served its purpose then, it’s outdated now. Part of the cycle. Still, it came out an important time in the industry when people were leaving film for digital and had no idea what to do with their photos once the image had been taken. I had been covering related technology for industry magazines and the book was an extension of that education.

Nonfiction has its own challenges but I love it as much as I love fiction. I grew up reading fiction at an early age, getting lost in Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume, Reading fiction was the perfect escape for a kid that kept relocating to a new school, a new city. While I enjoy many genres, mystery, suspense and thrillers remain my favorites. Not only do I love getting lost in the worlds other people create, I also love creating my own worlds and occupying them with interesting personalities. My husband once told me that I talk about these characters like they’re real people. I guess for me, they are real people. Is that weird?

I also like reading both fiction and nonfiction. I often bounce between reading a business book and a mystery at the same time. So, right now I’ve got Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better and Mark Pryor’s Hollow Man in progress. I find it hard to commit to reading one book at a time. Both books are excellent. And my TBR list is a little out of hand at the moment.

 

VPC- I know that you also have three kids. Two of them are twins! How do you juggle writing, working and raising a family?

LO- I think one of the challenges of loving your work and loving your family is that you never feel like you’re excelling in either arena at the same time. Other people may have tamed this dragon but I have yet to do so. I try to compartmentalize as much as possible, but it’s difficult. My time is often split into small segments so I work at piecing them together to create something meaningful. For example, I’ve started and stopped answering these questions several times already because of a soccer tournament, Prom, and NHS volunteer projects. Granted, it’s easier than it was when my kids were little, especially when my twins were in the pre-school stages. I don’t think I drank of cup of hot coffee for a couple of years. With three teenagers, it’s a different kind of busy. My job is largely driving, coordinating schedules, counseling and proofreading my kids’ English papers.   I am very fortunate to have an awesome husband who, despite a demanding work and travel schedule, still makes most of the sporting events, concerts and other things that are important. If he has to drive from the airport to a volleyball game, he’s there.

With respect to writing, I think one of the most difficult things is shifting my brain from multi-tasking to creative mode. I have found that it is so important to protect that sacred space of allowing your imagination to roam, to get lost in the ‘what if’s of storytelling so the story has time to grow and take some turns. I really have to work at protecting that space. It’s very easy for real life to intrude and lay claim to it. (Link to Laura’s article about making the most of your time via the Pomodoro Method.) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

VPC: What aspect of writing do you enjoy the most?

LO: I have a fond affection for dialogue. I love writing interactions between characters, trying to find the proper beats where the back-and-forth feels authentic. Elmore Leonard remains one of my all time favorite masters of dialogue. He said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I think that’s very good advice. I also enjoy editing, maybe even more than writing the first draft, because it’s my opportunity to shape the story and figure out what works and what is getting in the way of the story moving forward.

 

VPC- How did you come to be a member of AMW?

LO-I met Kathy Waller and Gale Albright through our local Sisters in Crime chapter and was part of the Barbara Burnett Smith Mentor program in 2012. They invited me in and I have enjoyed their company and critiques ever since. Writing is a solitary process, so having like minded writers who want to discuss plot points, character development and setting is a wonderful thing. I would probably bore my non-writer friends out of their minds but the AMW people get me. And I’m grateful for it.

 

VPC- What are you working on now?

LO-I am currently revising my second mystery, Point & Shoot, which was named a finalist in the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript competition. I’m also working on a few short stories, including one for an anthology being put together by AMW for publication next year. I continue to write for the photo industry, although I’m taking a hiatus for a bit to focus on my fiction (no pun intended). I’m leaving for Malice Domestic this week (in Bethesda, MD) and am looking forward to spending time with some of my favorite writers and friends.   I’m also finally making it to Bouchercon this year in New Orleans. Other than that, I’m just trying to find time to write each day so I can keep my imaginary friends alive. They suffer if I’m gone too long. And I do, too.  I’m cranky if I’ve gone a bit without writing.  Even worse than when I skip coffee, and that’s saying something.

 

Hank & Laura

With Hank Phillippi Ryan at MD 2014

Malice laura and kaye

Laura and Kaye George at Malice in 2014

 

 

Article about Malice Domestic 2014

 

 

 

 

Thank you for the interview, Laura Oles! I’ve enjoyed these interviews. I like showing the world how diverse we are in AMW.

Interview With AMW Member Kathy Waller

Interview with Manning Wolfe

One of the perks of being a writer is having interesting and talented friends. Today I’d like to introduce you to Manning Wolfe.Manning Wolfe Headshot 2

VPC – Manning, welcome to the AMW blog and congratulations on your debut novel! Can you tell us a little something about it?

 

MW –Yes, it’s called Dollar Signs:Texas Lady Lawyer vs Boots King. It’s the first in a series and this one is set in Austin, Houston, and Port Aransas, Texas. MERIT BRIDGES, an Austin attorney and widowed mother with a lot of sass is the lead protagonist. She works hard, drinks too much wine, and sleeps with younger men. When she goes after a shady corporation threatening her client, she finds Boots King, a hired gun, threatening to kill her.

VPC – I know you’re a lawyer. In what ways did you use your legal background to write the book?

MW – The plot idea for Dollar Signs came from a client that I had several years ago who had gotten involved with an unscrupulous Outdoor Advertising Company (Billboards). Of course, I departed from that scenario fairly quickly in the book as the characters began to develop and the story took on a life of its own. I felt badly for that client and always wished he had gotten a fair shake. In Dollar Signs, I get to have the story turn out as I would have liked in real life. I’ve never practiced litigation although there are some courtroom scenes in the book. I wanted to show the other side of law – the business of it and the strategy that is involved.

VPC – Have you always wanted to be a writer?

MW – Yes, since I was a small child I’ve been spinning yarns and telling tales. I wrote my stories down as drawings, and then in narrative as soon as I was able to write. I loved Nancy Drew growing up and always wanted to write stories with a strong plot. I had great teachers who encouraged proper basic writing habits, so I received a good foundation early on. Much later, I wrote the screenplay of the life of Buckminster Fuller and found that I like combining cinematic style with novel structure. That blend has led me to the way I write today – fast paced legal thrillers with a strong visual component.

VPC – Where did you grow up and how has it affected your writing?

MW – I grew up in a small town just north of Houston called Humble. By the time I was in junior high, I had read every book in our public library. I still remember the wonderful librarian there and her interest in my constant reading habit. My father often asked me to do research in the courthouse archives in Harris County.  Those two things led not only to my legal career, but my writing career as well.  Property and business issues in the law are like a puzzle to me.  I always loved games and still enjoy online games and cards. Sorting out legal problems in real life or in a story is like a puzzle to my brain. I enjoy figuring things out and documenting that in writing.

VPC – Do you have any favorite authors?

MW – I read a lot and across many genres, but my favorites are thrillers. As far as legal thrillers, I like the early John Grisham novels, as well as Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller series starting with The Lincoln Lawyer. Patricia Highsmith, who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a master of suspense. John Ellsworth’s Thaddeus Murfee series is very exciting, too. I think Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, that was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford, is one of the best legal thrillers ever written. And, of course, most people forget that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, another favorite of mine, was a legal thriller.

VPC – So what’s in store for your next book?

MW – The next book in the series is Green Fees: Texas Lady Lawyer vs Browno Zars, about a young golfer who wants to play the PGA tour and gets snagged up with a dastardly con man. It also was inspired by an actual client who was a golf pro. I’m editing it now for release later this year. I have about a dozen Texas Lady Lawyer novels in mind, some of them are outlined and some are just ideas.

VPC- Sounds good! Thanks for dropping by today and good luck on your new book. 🙂

DOLLAR SIGNS Final Ebook Cover 04

To keep up with Manning and her writing, you can go to her website at manningwolfe.com

 

AMW Author Highlight- Gale Albright

Interview With George Wier

George Wier was nice enough to agree to an interview. Thank you, George! George Wier

(He’s a personal friend of mine so he knew I’d give him grief if he didn’t. 😉  )

I know that you’re not originally from Austin. How did you get here?

I moved to Austin in 2002 from College Station. One day I took a look at the world around me and realized that most of my friends and all of my family had moved away. Also, after thirty years of living in Bryan-College Station, I knew everyone and everything that I wanted to know.  In a word, I was bored. I called an old friend who lived in Austin and told him about my dilemma, and without even the hint of hesitation, he offered a spare room in his apartment and told me to load up my meager possessions and come on. I left the next day. This was about September or October, not far from my 37th birthday. I was essentially–and with malice aforethought–wiping out an old existence and beginning a new one. I was time to do that. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Apart from rooting for the old home team (the Aggies) I took to Austin like a duck to water. I’m home now.

Have you always been a writer? Was there a book that inspired you to write?

Yes, I have always been a writer, ever since I could read. My first inspiration was comic books and film. My first actual attempt at a complete narrative was essentially a skit that was somehow a cross between a story and a script, and was actually inspired by Monty Python. I couldn’t do humor well, though, and sight gags were not my thing. The earliest, clearest influences on my writing came from science fiction, particularly Frank Herbert’s Dune books. I loved those. There is one story idea from those early days that I will attempt sometime in the near future. It’s about an outpost at the fringe of human expansion into the universe, and will be sort of a cross between Castaway and the Star Trek universe. We’ll see, though, if I ever get that done. My hopper is pretty much loaded up at the moment.

Along about 1976 or ’77, I was given a collection of Doc Savage paperbacks by my best friend’s sister. Her name was Peggy Dale Taylor. The Doc Savage books she gave me were the 1960s and ’70s Bantam paperback reprints of the old Street and Smith Doc Savage series written under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson, but mostly actually penned by Lester Dent, who though originally from Missouri, was a member of the Explorer’s Club in New York. Dent wrote about a quasi-private investigator, quasi-superhero named Clark Savage, Jr., and his five aides, who traveled the world righting wrongs and punishing evildoers. They sparked the imagination of this young teenager and would later very largely influence my Bill Travis Mystery series. The difference, however, between Doc Savage and Bill Travis is that Bill is based in Texas and rarely crosses the state line, he doesn’t have a lot of gadgets to help him out, and his small collection of friends are more from the “friends in low places” crowd, and less from the “cream of the crop”. I’ve written ten Bill Travis books, and there are at least eleven more to go before I round out the series, including three prequels. And by the time I’m at the end of that long runway, I should–hope springs eternal–know how to write.

Tell us about the different genres you write. Does the genre influence how you approach or plot your book?

Mostly, I write MY genre. I’m not sure what that is. For instance, the Bill Travis books, though billed as mystery, occasionally cross over the line into the fantastic, or you might call it Science Fiction. The first book, The Last Call, is straight action-adventure. The second book, Capitol Offense, while it has elements of action-adventure, is at least half mystery with some elements of political intrigue. The third book, Longnecks and Twisted Hearts, quite definitely crosses the line into science fiction, yet remains mostly a murder mystery. Books four and five, The Devil to Pay and Death On the Pedernales, are both pretty much straight mysteries. Book Six, Slow Falling, has so much science fiction that it should probably be classified as such, yet it’s my favorite of all of them. And so on through the series. By the time we get to book ten, Ghost of the Karankawa, Bill Travis meets Bigfoot. So, there you go. 

Genre doesn’t so much influence me. The story does, however. It’s going to ultimately be whatever it is. I don’t write from outline, or at least in those few instances when I have and “knew” what was coming in later chapters, the outline might be a simple sentence of what was to happen in that chapter. About the only time I do that however, is either when I’m skipping around in the book and writing it in a non-linear fashion or when I’m collaborating and my co-author needs to fill in what I skipped over. In the latter instance, it’s at least courteous for me to provide some clues as to what, in general, I think should happen here and there in the story. I guess that’s about it on that.

As a side-note, I don’t like to read a lot of books in the genre in which I’m going to be doing any extensive writing (i.e., mysteries) because I don’t like to be unduly influenced by other writers. People tell me that my writing style is similar to John D. McDonald. I must confess, I’ve never read a John D. McDonald book. I hear that they’re wonderful, and at the top of the mystery genre, so I always take that as a high compliment and accept it as gracefully as I can. But, I’ll only read a mystery if it’s written by a friend and this friend needs an endorsement or a general leg up. That’s about it. 

What is the secret to your success?

Writing is like anything else. Most of the battle is won by showing up. You have to sit down and write. You have to write a lot. You have to produce, bang out copy, write like there’s no tomorrow (there really isn’t, after all, there is only today!), plan and scheme and push the envelope. However, I think what you’re asking me is for some formula. Okay, I’ll give it to you. Here are my “secrets” to success (it’s interesting to me that there are no real secrets. The nature of the universe is that we all think that there’s some great secret hidden back of the curtain of reality, and that if we could only somehow penetrate that curtain, why, we’d HAVE IT and we’d simply do that magical little formula and the world would lie at our feet. The secret of the universe is nothing. This is also the definition of a mystery. A mystery is: the answer was not given. That’s all a mystery is. The mystery of the universe is a big fat zero. We don’t do well, as a species, with zero. Nothing is difficult to confront. If you don’t believe me, try walking through an unfamiliar house full of furniture in the pitch blackness. You move slowly, at best, because you’re pretty sure you’re going to hit something hard and kill your shins, or fall down and break your neck. So, in our minds, that darkness, that big zero, is really “something”. (Let me tell you, it’s not!):   

I have, this lifetime, sifted through quite a bit of data on success. I’ve narrowed my findings to ten basic points:

     1. Work toward your goal every single day.

     2. Do not let the sun set without accomplishing something towards it.

     3. Hold on to any wins you achieve along the way and disregard the losses.

     4.Don’t allow anyone to evaluate or invalidate your goals, your dreams, and particularly your abilities.

     5. Thinking about a thing is not the same as doing a thing. Success is only ever accomplished through action. The dream, however, must give your actions purpose and life.

     6. Treat your goals as if they are living beings, and grant them life.

     7. All other rules apply with regard to your goals, particularly the Golden Rule.

     8. Study, learn and become the top person on the planet in your field. Knowing WHY is of immense value. Knowing HOW will guarantee prosperity. Knowing both HOW and WHY is everything.

     9. If you get mad at someone or something that stands in your way, you have granted them or it immense power. Become unflappable. In any situation you are the expert. You are the source. Unquestionably. Success is hidden in the minutiae. It’s the small things that, brought together, create the whole.

     10. Fortune and fame are illusions, and at best are fleeting. Don’t seek these. Instead, seek happiness. You will ultimately find that it resides within you.

I’ve found that most writers have other talents. What are your other talents?

Well, that’s a loaded question. I like to think I’m adept at everything I do, and typically overinflate my abilities, at the very least to myself. However, I like to draw (with a mechanical pencil), I paint, I play violin and I play country fiddle, and I do other things I’m not supposed to do. 

Some of George’s pictures
West Texas  Fall    Secret Meadow

Do you have any advice particularly for mystery writers?

The main piece of advice, I suppose, is what I said above about not reading too much in that genre. But really, you might like to read mysteries and want to write them as well. Really, it’s a personal preference on my part not to do so. I also write a little science fiction, for instance, and I am so well-read in that genre, and will continue to be so, that it’s impractical for me to even think about not reading science fiction. So, whatever your write, whether it’s mystery or romance or whatever, you should write what my friend Joe Lansdale calls “your own genre”. Your writing is YOUR genre. Write what you want to write, and how you want to write it. And, write what you, yourself, would most want to read. That’s the simple one. Do that, and you’ve got it made.

Tell us something cool about Austin that we probably don’t know.

The one thing I like about Austin is that it’s full of secrets. There are so many little-known, out-of-the-way and off-the-beaten-path little hidey-hole restaurants, coffee bars, music venues, acting and dancing troupes, and etc. I love finding those. It’s my goal to find all of them! Sallie and I venture forth at least once weekly looking for that offbeat place that we’ve never heard of before. And I have the knack for smelling them out.

How can we find more information about you and your books?

The best place is my website, www.georgewier.com (which takes you directly to the www.billtravismysteries.comsite). Both of these sites have now been combined into one. Also, I have a wordpress blog at http://georgewier.wordpress.com. Other than that, you can follow me on Twitter at @BillTravisWrite and on Facebook at George Wier-Author. Also, I encourage everyone to communicate directly with me. I usually answer my own emails, and I typically do this quickly. So, please communicate with me. I know that people get punished in this world for the two great crimes: being there and communicating. But, that’s the only way to ever get anywhere. So, yes, get in touch with me and ask if you can’t find the answer. Or just email me to say “Hey!” I’ll say “hey” back at you.

What are you working on now?

Hmm. The question should be “what are you NOT working on now?” I’m working on Bill Travis #11, Desperate Crimes. Also, I’m right at the end of yet another mystery standalone entitled Errant Knight. It’ll be forthcoming in a few weeks as an ebook and a trade paperback. I will have another book coming out from Cinco Puntos Press in January of 2016 entitled Murder In Elysium. Also, I’m collaborating at the moment with Billy Kring (another fantastic mystery author) on the steampunk series The Far Journey Chronicles. Billy and I have completed and published 1889: Journey to the Moon, and have finished and are in the process of editing 1899: Journey to Mars. We have also begun 1904: Journey Into Time. There will be a minimum of four books in that series, with the last one planned: 1909: Journey to Atlantis. Aside from that, I’ve got a few other projects going that I pay attention to, catch as catch can. But I have far more than that planned, including a collaborative series with science fiction great (and friend), T.R. Harris, of San Diego, California. I guess that’s it.

Thanks for the interview. You’ve given me a lot to think about and now I’m pumped up! I can’t wait to get back to my writing!

Mystery/Thriller Recommendations

It’s that time of year! A time for reflection on the past year and anticipation of the new. If you’re like me, you hear a lot of people mention a good book or movie and you think to yourself, “That sounds good! I gotta remember that.” And then you don’t.

So, since I have a lot of friends on Facebook who like mysteries and thrillers, I’ve asked them to recommend at least one good book or movie they discovered this year. And of course, each of us here at AMW has a recommendation too.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Mandy Eve Barnett (author): mandyevebarnett.com – Lucy – it is unusual, exciting and a great twist at the end! A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

2. Beverly Nelms (personal and book club friend) – A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman from a John LeCarre book. It’s about a (most likely) innocent Muslim man being ground up in the system by the Taliban, then by us. PSH plays a German operative with a small group of “assets” who is trying to help him. Underdogs helping the underdog. The view of agents, especially ours, is devastating.

3. Laura Wilson (personal and book club friend) – I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, book much better than the movie, by Stieg Larsson. The main character is a girl with a troubled background who is brilliant with technology and a research savant. There is torture, murder, blackmail and deceit all over this book.

4. Billy Kring (mystery author) www.billykring.com – Suspect by Robert Crais. One of my top reads of the year, and highly recommended. LAPD cop Scott James and his female partner are ambushed, and Scott is wounded, his partner killed. He is broken, suffering, and angry, textbook PTSD. As a last chance, he is partnered with a german shepherd with her own problems. Maggie is a two-tour bomb-sniffing dog who lost her handler in an ambush. She is also suffering from PTSD, and it is her last chance, too. When they begin to investigate the case where Scott’s partner was murdered, they have to rely on each other, and what they encounter in the case could well break both of them.

5. David B. Schlosser (writer, editor) – www.dbschlosser.com – The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. This terrific Australian mystery explores the traditional aspects of a crime/cop story — good guys, bad guys, and their travails — as well as some really interesting cultural challenges in Australia.

6. Kelly Pustejovsky (personal friend) – I watched Dream House yesterday on Netflix, surprisingly good.

7. Tara Madden (personal friend) – Wilde’s The Gods of Gotham and it’s sequel. Fairly new mystery series about the very beginnings of the NYPD set in the 1840s. Very good. Really pulls you into the story. Great richly created characters.

8. Jeanne Kisacky (writer) – It’s been out a while, but Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity defied my ability to see where the plot was going. It was truly remarkable to read a book and not have any of my guesses pan out.

9. H.M. Bouwmann (author and professor) – www.hmbouwman.com – I’ll second the Code Name Verity recommendation. And I enjoyed both Robert Galbraith (Rowling) mysteries–though I loved the first more than the second. Also, just as an FYI, the opening couple of pages are not great. Then: very good.

10. Roger Cuevas (personal friend) – I love Alice LaPlant’s “Turn of Mind.” It’s narrated by a woman, a former hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s. Then one day her neighbor and long-time friend is found dead and the body’s hands have been expertly removed. Did she do it? Our narrator just can’t remember…

11. Morris Nelms (personal, book club friend, professor of fine arts, and musician) (Yea, he’s a cool guy) – The Afghan, by Forsyth. Frequencies, a sci-fi whodunit movie. Crescent City Rhapsody, a sci-fi thriller about what happens when an EMP disables everything.

12. Joseph Huerta (personal friend) – The two “Blood” books by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell that feature warfare against the forces of Armageddon, including angels and devils and a secret band of priests who were once vampires. Yes, it doesn’t really sound like a Joe-book but it was truly fascinating. The third book will be out this Spring.

13. Angie Kinsey (writer) – www.angiekinsey.com – The Martian by Andy Weir – a not too far fetched sci-fi thriller about an engineer who gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out how to stay alive with the resources he has until he can connect with home. Entertaining and thrilling!

14. Debbie Woodard (personal friend) –  I discovered the BBC’S Sherlock this year. Fantastic production, great actors, character-driven-well-written scripts.

15. Elizabeth Buhmann (AMW member) – I’ve read a lot of good mysteries this year. I think I’ll go for Present Darkness, the latest by Malla Nunn, but my recommendation is not to start here but to start with her first, A Beautiful Place to Die. The setting for these books is South Africa in the 1950s, at the height of the Apartheid era.

16. Laura Oles (AMW member) – My favorite this year isn’t a traditional mystery but I loved it because it had a strong mystery component and very strong storytelling. It was Leaving Time by Judy Picoult.

17. Gale Albright (AMW member) – I was fascinated and awed by Tana French’s In the Woods, from the very first paragraph because her writing is lyrical and compelling. It’s set in Ireland and is her first book about the “Dublin Murder Squad.”

18. Kaye George (AMW member) – I’m JUST like that. I vow to remember the good books I’ve read, but, alas, my memory doesn’t really go back 12 months. I know that every Harlan Coben I read is my favorite. Recently I read “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger and it was terrific. It’s the first Cork O’Connor book. I’ve read others, but had never read this one.

19. Kathy Waller (AMW member) – Terry Shames’ A Killing at Cotton Hill. She captures small town life in a southern town while mixing humor with suspense and mystery. I couldn’t put it down. It won the 2014 Macavity Award. 

20. My favorite book that I read this past year was Jackaby by William Ritter. I loved the mix of historical fantasy and mystery. Jackaby is an investigator of unexplained phenomena and the story is told from the POV of his new assistant, Abigail Rook. It’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. It was delightful and intriguing.

So there you have it! A whole slew of books to add to your TBR (To Be Read) list.

Writer Unboxed Un-Conference

Salem house

Just got back from the Writer Unboxed Un-Con a couple of days ago and like many of my peers, I’m having a hard time adjusting to real life again. It was so great! What’s Writer Unboxed? I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

WU is a wonderful blog (www.writerunboxed.com) that’s all about the craft of writing fiction and providing moral support for fellow writers. I’ve been a member of the “family” for a few years now and I can say that it’s been invaluable.

This was the first conference and it was held in Salem, Massachusetts and what a wonderful time of year to be there! The leaves were gorgeous and it was right after Halloween so there was still a magical feeling in the air.

The days were packed with classes and workshops. I literally filled my notebook with notes. I wish I could tell you everything I learned and the insights I discovered, but that would take  pages and pages to do. So instead I’ll share some granules of wisdom and some links so you can delve further on your own.

My first class was Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. I’m now a groupie. It was about how stories are the most powerful form of communication and our brains are literally wired for story because that’s how information has been passed down for generations. When someone says, “Let me tell you a story…” your brain releases Dopamine and you’re ready to experience the story. A good story is more important than beautiful writing because you’ll get a better reader response. She compared it to a tricked out car with no engine. It’s pretty, but it won’t get you anywhere. And most importantly—story is internal, not external. It’s what happens to your characters. Lisa has a TED talk all about this. I highly recommend it. It’s almost more like learning philosophy and about writing.

Learned about Setting as Character taught by Brunonia Barry and Liz Michalski. Both are from the area so not only was it a good class about describing your setting, they offered some new insights into the area. Most of it was a writing exercise and some of us shared what we wrote.

Velveteen Characters taught by Therese Walsh. Therese is a founder of WU and organized the conference so she is a powerhouse, to say the least. Basically she said that all of your characters are important, even the secondary ones. You should try to give each one a quirk or flaw, it makes them more real and will enhance the story. She suggested for a writing prompt to make 5 assumptions about a character and flip them. See what happens!

Plot vs  and Story taught by Lisa Cron, Brunonia Barry, and Donald Maass. This was a biggie. To sum up copious notes, story is internal and the changes that happen within your characters. Plot is actions, events and things that affect your characters. Also a side-note,  every single scene should have conflict, action, suspense, and a turning point.

Where Story Comes From led by Meg Rosoff. Basically, you are unique so your voice is unique. It was about tapping into the conscious and unconscious mind, to get to those memories, fears, and feelings that are real. If you can convey those feelings, your voice will be unique and you’ll connect with the reader.

Donald Maass’s class on How Good Manuscripts Go Wrong. So many notes! He talked about how to make your characters deeper and more interesting by giving them flaws and obstacles to overcome. Does your MC (main character) do something that no one else can do? Does your MC know something that no one else knows?  And don’t forget to add tension to every scene. Most books don’t have enough tension.

The last day was an all-day long workshop about 21st Century Fiction. It seems that genres are starting to cross over and readers are expecting it. Plot driven books have deeper characters and literary books have more suspense and action. His method was to ask questions which make you think about your characters and the events. Many people, myself included, had “aha!” moments which made us look at things differently. So insightful.

That’s it in a nutshell. I’m including a video of me singing the Un-Con song. It’s embarrassing and the quality isn’t great, but it was fun.