Front of the historic Angel Hotel
When I got the chance to visit the historic Suffolk town of Bury St. Edmunds I knew I would find a mystery there. The place is loaded with history, and haunted sites abound. First stop was our hotel, the Angel, where Charles Dickens stayed and which he mentioned in his book The Pickwick Papers. Although I did not get the chance to stay in his room, hotel staff were very courteous and happy to show it to me. It’s very small and cozy—I could really imagine stowing away and writing in that perfect little space! The Nutshell - Britain's smallest pub
Elsewhere around Bury, the Abbey Gardens across from the hotel was a charming place to stroll and think. The town’s narrow cobbled streets and historic shops further added to my list of places to set imaginary scenes. The story of the Nutshell Pub, where a mummified cat still lends its presence, was a must to be included in my story.
Of course, I wanted to place my own characters there and come up with a story both modern-day and with a whiff of all that delightful haunted stuff. To taste the Cornish pasties and browse the shops (I love buying clothes that I would never find at home!), drink tea as only the English make it and walk the same streets Dickens walked … all of it added richness to my imagination and helped me put Charlie Parker into a new setting far from her native New Mexico.
Where do writers get their ideas? Wherever we happen to be!
I’m often asked where I get my ideas, so beginning this month I decided to feature one of my books each month and give a little background. I hope you’ll enjoy this feature.
Reunions Can Be Murder
Some book ideas start with the crime, some with the characters—this one started with the title. We were at my family reunion that summer and my cousins began teasing me about my book titles, each being something-can-be-murder. When, in the middle of a red-hot beanbag-toss game, someone joked about calling a book Reunions Can Be Murder, my little writer brain went “Ah-ha!”
On the way home Dan and I were driving along a narrow back road when we spotted the turnoff to a ghost town called White Oaks. We followed the trail and came to the town that I later described in the book. A nice man there—despite his being quite hard of hearing and asking us to repeat all our questions—gave us a tour of the old schoolhouse and told some very interesting stories. Some of those also made it into the book, others were fictionalized.
Anyway … back at home I began looking for ways to put my chosen title together with the ghost town and its Old West mining history. In came the fictional lady lawyer who insisted upon a family reunion, along with her cantankerous father who would do nearly anything to avoid attending. The character I had most fun with was the café owner who was based upon an in-law who, yes, did own a café, and yes, did dress and talk the way Keith Randel did in the book. He actually asked to be given a role in the story and was pleased with the result. I hope my readers are pleased, as well.
Recently, a reader asked: Is Samantha Sweet a totally fictional character or is someone a muse for your writing?
A. Sam really is her own person, although I borrowed things from various people to flesh out her life. I learned to bake and decorate cakes way back when I was in high school, so I actually dug out some of my old books and catalogs to describe the way things go in the bakery. I also frequently visit the baking boards on Pinterest for ideas and inspiration for the very cool cakes Sam makes.
For her side job where she breaks into houses, I must admit one of my former writing students fed me the idea. He held this job, performing the tasks required for a USDA property caretaker and he gave me some background and ideas for a few of the weird things that had happened to him. My imagination began to run wild and I came up with things for Sam to deal with, especially in the early books.
Otherwise, Samantha is pretty much every woman of her age group. She’s had to deal with a grown daughter who moved back home, starting a new business after years of money struggles, and then in the midst of menopause she’s got a new love in her life. Oh, and the occasional murders which cross her path—you know, just the usual everyday stuff.
My first venture into children's fiction, and what fun it's been. I must admit to shamelessly borrowing from the antics of my own two pups to write this one--fun!
Happy Autumn, everyone!
My summer started off with a rush, and hasn't let up one bit. First thing, I began the massive chore of organizing my office (helped here by my two able assistants!). There comes a point where all those research papers and old manuscripts just become clutter. Not to mention the four outdated computers, spare furniture and two printers that took up way too much space. Loads of stuff went to the library fundraiser flea-market and I started fresh with a clean desk. I love it!
Two months now have been a flurry of activity, including cookouts with neighbors, out of town family visitors, breakfasts at our favorite local spot, and lots of walks with the dogs. My home page shows where most of my attention has gone--a new Samantha Sweet book for all the fans who have written to ask when there will be another. I wrote the first draft this past spring, followed now by rounds of revisions, red penned notes by two editors, and final read-throughs to try and catch any fumble-fingered typing I might have missed.
And ... You'll see that Charlie and her pooch, Rusty, were invited to become part of a fantastic boxed set of cozy, pet-themed mysteries. There are 8 great writers in this group (all best-sellers!): Carole Nelson Douglas with her inimitable Midnight Louie, Harper Lin, Joanne Pence, Leighann Dobbs, Pamela Dumond and Denise Dietz all contributed full-length books. Carolyn Haines (recipient of the Harper Lee Award) even wrote a bonus novella especially for this set. It's never been published anywhere before. For those who love animals--don't we all?--and those who love mysteries, this set called Killer Tails should be loads of fun. I know I can't wait to read all these myself!
Plus, there's more ... I'm currently working on the next Charlie Parker book and hope to have it finished before the end of the year. I also have a little something up my sleeve, which I plan to have finished before Christmas. More about that as I get the details worked out.
It's hard to believe school starts in about two weeks here in our neck of the woods ... summer really does rush right on by, but I'm so happy and grateful to be able to do what I do and stay in touch with my fans!
Take care and enjoy your summer!
I haven’t attended a mystery conference in several years but back when I often did such events, I usually appeared on panels where writers discussed their work and readers could ask questions. One question that came up frequently was this: Which is your favorite of your own books?
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and it’s a tough one. It's almost like asking a mom which is her favorite child. You really can’t choose. I have to admit, though, some books were easier for me than others (um, I guess that applies to kids, too, doesn't it?). I do have a certain partiality to the stories that have a compelling character whom I can't get out of my head, and to the stories where my characters get away from home.
For instance, I loved writing Phantoms Can Be Murder and Competition Can Be Murder in my Charlie Parker series. Both were inspired by trips to England and Scotland where the locations give such a sense of history. Old graveyards, huge stone castles and echoey cathedrals have always fascinated me. A memorable drive along the entire length of Loch Ness, together with tours of a couple of Scottish castles provided details for Charlie and Drake’s adventure in Scotland in Competition. Several stays in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, along with a lot of reading about the variety of haunted sites in the area, provided ideas for Phantoms. Both of those books came together for me so vividly that I didn’t want them to end.
So, although I can’t really say that I have a ‘favorite’ there are definitely some that hold a singular place in my heart. I hope they are special to you, as well. Happy reading!
Each month I take a question from a reader to include in my newsletter. This month, Dawn from South Africa asks: When you start a new book, how do you plan out the crime/s – do you just start and see where it goes, do you plan out the whole story from beginning to end, or do you start at the end, knowing who your murderer is, and work backwards?
Thanks, Dawn. I think writers handle this in whatever way feels most comfortable to us. I am definitely a plotter. When I begin a new book I start with a situation or intriguing fact and build the story around it. For Sweet's Sweets, Samantha Sweet book #2, someone had told me about his eerie experience of coming across a blood-soaked overcoat at a thrift shop, which started me wondering … what if Sam found such a garment in one of those abandoned houses?
I began building a plot around that premise. Always, before I begin writing the first draft I have an opening scene in my head, and I make sure I know the crime, the victim, and the motive—at the very least. Usually I also know the killer but I must admit there have been a few instances where I started out with one person in mind and switched it partway through. It depends on how obvious the solution seems. If I think it’s going to be too easy, I’ll throw in a wrench or two to keep you guessing.
The other aspect to my stories, apart from the crime and its solution, is the ongoing personal life of my sleuth. That’s an area where I start with an idea about where it will end up (does he propose by the end of this book, or will it happen in a later one?), but I let the characters lead the way. Some of their actions have even surprised me!
I find plotting can be one of the most fun parts of writing (it certainly goes faster than actually getting those 75,000+ words on the page). I love playing with ideas and visualizing characters in my head before they come to life in the story. My love of plot may be a big reason why I currently have more than a dozen books plotted which I’ve not yet had time to write. I guess this means I won’t be retiring anytime soon …
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Blog Note: I’m sorry to say that after my blog was caught up in some kind of spamming web, I’ve had to close it to comments from readers. It was taking a huge amount of my time to ferret out the offenders and delete their posts. My real readers know how to email me with comments or questions. I’m always happy to hear from you!
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This is my favorite holiday of the year because it’s all about love. Simple gifts are the best (a kiss, a card, a heartfelt expression of love, a simple gesture “can I do that for you, honey?”); it’s a time to express love to those who are important in our lives. Happy Valentine's Day to you, my cherished readers!
Winter mood-lifter tip: Most days, before I begin my writing day at the keyboard, I sit quietly to put myself in the relaxed state required for creative thinking. Letting go of the clutter in our minds for just a few minutes is a proven way to relax and regain focus, and it has become an integral part of my morning routine.
Give it a try—sit in a quiet place, take a few deep breaths, intentionally let your mind go completely blank. By introducing a positive thought beforehand (“I enjoy perfect health” or “I feel very energetic today”), even if the statement isn’t true in that moment, I find that the mere intention of the statement takes hold. Within ten or fifteen minutes, I really do feel more energetic and creative. Many people are able to improve their health, attitude, feel happier and approach their day with renewed vigor. I hope it works for you, too!
My next book is titled The Woodcarver’s Secret.
For those readers who are fans of my Samantha Sweet mystery series this is the prequel, the book that shows where the mysterious wooden box came from and how it eventually reached Sam. If you’ve not begun reading the Samantha books, I think you will still enjoy this historical saga as a stand-alone book.
On a summer day in 13th century Ireland a simple Celtic woodworker takes a walk past a near-dead alder tree where a chance act of nature and the woodcarver’s hidden talent starts an unimaginable chain of events. From the wood of that dead tree John Carver creates three boxes.
One box, legend says, imparts healing and light; one box answers to the forces of darkness; the third box represents the middle way, with an ability to adapt to the spirit of the person who possesses it—whether good or evil. Through the centuries the boxes pass through many hands, exerting their influence, changing lives, creating a world of secrets.
Here’s a video that gives a little taste of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgYxKoYaJ14
We are now finishing the edits and will soon do the final proofreading. Watch for The Woodcarver’s Secret
Things have been incredibly busy since I returned from my trip to China in October. My fantastic editors got busy with Legends Can Be Murder, #15 in my Charlie Parker series, and it is now available! Click over to my home page for full details on that. And there's more ...
We also got busy on something new, just for this holiday season … I love winter and the holidays and wanted to do something special this year, so we’ve created an e-book boxed set containing all my titles that have holiday themes—I never realized I had so many!
“Gift Wrapped For Murder” includes Sweet Holidays, Honeymoons Can Be Murder, Buried Secrets Can Be Murder, and Holidays Can Be Murder. A fun gift for any avid reader on your list—hostess gift, co-worker, neighbor, or stocking stuffer! Act soon because, like Santa disappearing up the chimney, this set will not be around after Christmas.
Readers Want to Know:
Q. Do you read a lot and which authors or books do you choose?
A. Absolutely, I love to read! It’s what got me started on the path to writing. These days I probably don’t read as much as many of you do. I average about one book a week when I’m writing, and I always read something other than mysteries at that time so another writer’s work won’t influence my own.
Occasionally, like on vacation, I’ll manage two or three in a week if the author really captures my attention.
Favorites in the mystery genre are New Mexico authors Tony Hillerman, Susan Slater and Steve Brewer, along with more mainstream names like Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich. Elizabeth George for British settings and Ruth Rendell for psychological mystery. I also love historical fiction by Ken Follett; literary authors such as Jodi Picoult, Donna Tartt, and Barbara Kingsolver; suspense like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. And once in awhile I’ll indulge in a fast-paced story by Stephen King (favorite was 11/22/63, his otherworldly take on the Kennedy assassination). Really, there are so many authors and series that I can’t name them all! For non-fiction I’ll confess that a lot of my passions revolve around writing and publishing (any surprise there?), but I also love psychology, inspirational, and things that explain how our complex minds work and other quirky things that happen. Example: The Tipping Point and other books by Malcolm Gladwell.
I love to chat with readers about books and writing and just about anything, so be sure to send me your questions!
And finally, I want to take a moment to wish you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving. Warmest regards from my household to yours!
To Asia and Home Again!
This week sees me at home after what has to be the trip of a lifetime! Twenty-eight days in Japan, China and Thailand, with a schedule that still boggles my mind. 17 cities, 13 flights, 3 rivers and several canal boat rides. We saw silkworms eating mulberry leaves and rugs being woven from the resulting silk, jade carvers making the impressive ball-within-a-ball carvings, cloisonné workers applying intricate colors to vases and other enamelware, had tea with an artist who paints miniature scenes inside bottles, visited the home of one of the millions of people displaced by the massive Three Gorges Dam project and stared in fascination at the giant pandas in the Chongqing zoo (I wanted to hug one, but they wouldn’t let me).
We ascended over halfway to the top of Mount Fuji in Japan, climbed the Great Wall and saw the Three Gorges Dam in China, sailed four days on the Yangtze River, sailed the spectacular Li River surrounded by unending ranges of steep mountains, watched performances by the Beijing Opera, Chinese acrobats, and an awesome Thai stage show with live elephants walking the aisles through the audience! There was so much, it would take an entire book to tell it all. Knowing me, you can guess that I managed to find quite a few plot ideas and locales to use for future stories. Stay tuned!
Of course, as you know from reading my books, food is an ever-important theme with me and I had to wonder—could I handle Asian food for 28 straight days? Answer is—yes! I loved it, and even now, after being home only four days I think I could go out for Chinese again. (although I will admit that we popped out for McDonald’s a couple of times for lunches, just to get a taste of home).
Holding a black egg from the Hakone district in Japan.
Here are some fun food facts that I learned during the trip:
- Would you eat a black egg? Near the base of Mt. Fuji, in the Hakone district, there are sulfur springs hot enough to boil eggs. When the eggs are cooked in this water for about an hour, the shells become black and chalky-looking but the egg inside is hard-boiled and delicious. We ate them!
- In China’s restaurants nearly all meals are served family style with a large lazy-susan in the middle of the table. Dishes are brought out throughout the meal and since dinner plates are tiny, you start serving yourself immediately and eating as the food comes. Sometimes three entrees will arrive, then soup, later comes the rice … no particular order … often a dozen dishes or more. We noted that watermelon is the favored dessert so we learned that the meal wasn’t over until the watermelon slices showed up.
- When KFC first opened in China people were so impressed that they dressed up to go there, men in ties and women in dresses, and it was the place of choice for special occasions.
- Parents in China tell their kids to clean their plates because there are starving kids in America! (this brought howls of laughter from us when our guide told us; guess we Americans aren’t the first to think up this means of convincing our kids to finish their dinner!)
- Would you do something for all the tea in China?—careful, China grows over a million tons a year. Did you know that white tea, green tea, and black tea all come from the same plant? The difference is in which leaves are picked and at what stage. We went to a tea farm and learned how to properly pick the delicate leaves for white and green tea, then we were treated to a tea ceremony where we tasted several varieties.
Here I am picking tea leaves at the tea farm.
Readers Want to Know!
Patty asks if Samantha Sweet’s daughter, Kelly, and Julio might become a couple, or do I have anyone else in mind for Kelly?
A. Well, I can’t honestly say that I ever thought of Kelly and Julio as a romance, but you never know…. She’s been a little rebellious in the past and the tattooed biker might put Beau on edge if Julio were to come into the family. On the other hand, since Sam already knows and likes Julio, it might spark up the plot if Kelly chooses someone else, a man Sam would have a problem with. Boyfriend troubles are always a good way to add tension to a story. What do you think—should Kelly have a boyfriend sometime soon or not?
Keep the questions coming!
If you have a question you're dying to know the answer to, email me! One lucky person will be featured in my next newsletter.
New! Charlie Parker is back in book #15, Legends Can Be Murder – Pre-order it Now!
I’m excited to announce that November 15 is the release date for the next Charlie book. Legends Can Be Murder
was a lot of fun to write. You may remember a hint dropped in the last book, where Drake has agreed to take a summer job in Alaska—well, this is it!
Charlie goes along and the two of them are working for a tour company called Gold Trail Adventures in Skagway; they will be piloting guests into the Alaskan wilderness to stay in cabins and try their luck searching for gold. Right away, one of the guests finds a set of bones in a cave, human remains that have obviously been in that spot for decades. The police chief has more to do than track down 40-year-old missing person reports so he leaves that task to Charlie and her new reporter friend, Mina.
Meanwhile, the world of the 1890’s Gold Rush comes alive for Charlie when she discovers a box of old letters from one of the hopeful stampeders to his wife back in San Francisco. The closer she gets to answers about the mysterious bones, the more it appears that someone in present-day Skagway will do almost anything to stop her.
You can pre-order the e-book or paperback
at Amazon, Kobo and Apple. Clicking Pre-order gets you on the list to receive yours on the day of release. Your credit card is not charged until the book is delivered to you.
Working Beneath The Squirrel Super-Highway
It’s autumn and the critters here at our mountain home are busy, busy, busy! Sitting at my desk I kept hearing a thump-clatter-clatter above my head. Wondering what on earth was going on I started watching.
An ambitious little family of squirrels have devised a pathway from our blue spruce trees in the front yard, which are full of cones at the moment … across the railing around our deck … a leap to the big ponderosa pine outside my office window, through the branches of the tree … another leap to the roof above my office (that big old thump!) … down the steeply pitched roof and another jump into the tree between our house and the neighbor’s.
I lost track of them after that, but I suspect the neighbor’s wood pile might be concealing several thousand pine cones by now. And now you know just one of the many little distractions that a writer uses to avoid having to come up with a new plot idea!
This little guy stopped on the railing for a bite to eat.
Q. Edel in Ireland asks if I have a favorite time or place to write, and wonders how I keep track of my story ideas.
A. Great question, Edel! I tend to be a morning person and I find it easiest to start my writing day by getting up early, making my first cup of tea, and getting right to my word processing program (avoiding email, as that can really distract me). I write on a laptop, usually at my desk, usually with papers, notebooks, plot outline and dictionary spread out around me. I write as non-stop as possible for 2-3 hours, then I’ll take break to look at the morning’s emails, have some breakfast, go for a walk with my husband. After that, I’m back at the manuscript for another 3-4 hours. Afternoons are usually devoted to answering fan mail, book promotional activities, or just taking care of business. By evening I’m usually reading for fun (I read 1-2 books a week just for pleasure) or relaxing in front of the TV with hubby (we’ve recently become hooked on the series Fringe). Even when otherwise occupied, I always keep a little notepad and pen at my side, which leads me to …
Keeping track of story ideas—I never rely on memory. If a great idea comes to me I write it down as quickly as possible. I have an “Ideas” folder that is full of little scraps, newspaper clippings, photos, plus several composition books with the beginnings of plots—whatever has sparked an idea at some point in time. I just went through that folder last week, mining for ideas to include in the next Charlie Parker book, and came across notes that have been in there since the early ’90s and ones I added as recently as last week.
When I taught writing classes and in my online course, Novel In A Weekend, I have always encouraged my students to keep such a folder. You may never use some of them, but then again better to have too many ideas than to face a blank page or screen with no clue what to do about it.
This Month’s E-Reader Winner!
Scott in Virginia was drawn as September’s winner. He chose a $100 gift card, since he and his wife already have e-readers and his whole family loves to read. Great choice, Scott, and thanks for being a subscriber!
What People are Saying!
"I love this series. As always an interesting story with many different intertwined happenings. Characters are believable and you find yourself caring about them. Sam and Beau are a great team. Had trouble putting it down! Get yourself a comfy chair, something to drink and make the time to read it all!"
-Eileen about Sweet Somethings on Amazon
Publishing, as an industry, as been on a real roller-coaster ride in recent years. I've followed the news avidly, since I've been involved on one level or another in the book business for over 25 years now. I've been a writer, a publisher, an editor, a writing teacher, and a bookstore owner. Each of these roles has provided me some new and valuable piece of the great puzzle that is bookselling--moving books from a mere idea in the writer's mind to a page that a reader will enjoy to the fullest.
Now, anyone who follows my newsletter already knows that I am a huge fan of e-books--lower cost, instant delivery, availability of an author's backlist titles--there are so many reasons. BUT, I am still and always will be a fan of printed books too. I love my local library and support them wholeheartedly. I love browsing a bookstore (many of whom are now offering e-books, did you know?). What I'm saying is that I doubt any true lover of books is going to give up printed books altogether, even if we love our Kindles and Kobos and Nooks and iPads.
It was with great interest this week that I did a little catching up on the news in the retail bookstore end of things. And the news is great! After a few years of doom-and-gloom predictions, the number of independent bookstores has actually increased over the past couple of years. Part of the reason might be because there are fewer major chain stores now, with the closing of Borders, but all the dire predictions about how e-books would put bookstores out of business have just not materialized.
So . . . what's the new, big, exciting news in the last few months for booksellers? The major book wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, have recently changed some of their terms and practices to allow bookstores to easily order titles of independent writers (I'm one of those) and small presses. This was not always the case, as I discovered during the years I owned a retail bookstore.
If you are a bookseller, this is a huge development. There has always been big frustration for those who wanted to carry a wider variety of titles but were unable to find them through wholesalers. Now, even POD books are available to you at favorable terms.
If you are a writer, it means there is a greater chance that your books will find space on the shelves. At the very least, it means that your fans can go into their favorite shop and request your book.
And if you are a reader (aren't we all?), hallelujah--you can go into your local store and ask for the book you want, even if it's an older title, and chances are very good that bookseller can get it for you.
I'm thrilled about this. In my days as a bookstore owner I worked with both of the major wholesalers and found it frustrating at times that I couldn't order certain books--for instance, the older titles of an author who was coming for a signing, or a self-published book that had gotten great reviews. I could buy it at retail from another store and sell it at a loss, but that hardly pays the rent. Having both major wholesalers bring the titles of lesser-known authors to your neighborhood bookstore can only be a good thing!
I say hurrah for the changes in the publishing industry in the past few years, because in the long run it's really about writers and readers meeting up. In an industry that has, in many ways, put roadblocks between writers and readers we are now seeing a much clearer path and a lot more interaction. I love it!
And, on that note, I'd like to add my personal thanks to every reader who has bought my books. I know there are millions of choices for you, and I am truly grateful when you choose me, whether you prefer a printed book or an e-book--thank you!!