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Saturday, December 25, 2010

I Start Knowing Nothing: An Interview with Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen will be appearing at the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago, Feb. 4-6, 2011. For more information go to

1. Murphy’s Law starts with a wonderful first sentence: “That mouth of yours will be getting you into big trouble one day.” In fact, all of your books start with a super first line. Any hints about how you make that happen?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the first line. I think it’s so important where you come into a story. Murphy’s Law doesn’t start with a high drama scene. It starts where she’s poised between two worlds. Getting a fast start is more important now than ever because so many people are buying books online. If you don’t come up with a good first line you’ve lost those readers.

Today’s readers are not going to wade through pages and pages of details like they would in the past. No one has the time for that anymore. Everyone has been raised on TV, and that comes in 90-second bites. So deciding where to come into a story is important.

2. Tell us about your process. You do a terrific job of giving backstory while in the midst of an action scene. How do you do that?

It’s going to sound awful, but I start knowing nothing, or the least little thing. For example, I’ll think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have Lady Georgie going to a wedding in Transylvania?” Then I plot maybe 20 pages at a time. But that’s all. I’m not a puppet master making my sleuth do this or that; I’m following my sleuth and seeing where she goes.

I’ve tried working from an outline, but it doesn’t work for me. When I finish the outline, I think, Oh, I’ve finished with that book. I’m terrified for the first half of every book, and I’m writing scared. When I get to the middle and I start to see how things are taking shape, I start to relax a little.

3. How do you plug in the backstory?

Giving the reader a big dump of backstory is the mark of a beginning writer. It’s more fun to give people hints. For example, at the start of Murphy’s Law, you know Molly is out of breath and her bodice is ripped but you don’t know why. Really it’s like when you are watching a movie and you see a hint of something dashing across the screen. You stop and think, “Oh! What is that?”

So the trick is to keep filling people in, while at the same time you are moving them forward, and not slowing them down. Less is always more with writing, so give the reader the least hint possible you can. My writing is quite spare. I don’t add a lot of description.

4. Both Molly and Georgie, your two protagonists in your two series, recognize that being financially dependent on anyone is the absolute pits. Where does that come from? Is there something in your life that makes that resonate with you?

I’ve been lucky enough to have a husband who is good with money, but I’ve had friends who are not so fortunate. Writing historicals, I’ve noticed that when women had no money, they were completely at the mercy of a man. That’s the way the laws worked, and that was not only true in the 1900s, but you can look at the I Love Lucy episodes and see it. There’s that one where Lucy was terribly afraid to tell Ricky she’d bought a new hat!

My own mother worked as a school principal. She had her own bank account. She made her own decisions, and I learned from her that having your own money allows you to be independent. So I guess that’s my own life coming through.

It’s funny. I’ve written a lot of books but these are the first characters, Molly and Georgie, that I’ve seen myself in, although I didn’t start out with that intention.

5. Speaking of women and their roles, tell us more about Sid and Gus. Were they modeled after Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein? Are they lesbians?

Alice and Gertrude--I didn’t even think of that until you suggested it. I could have a lot of fun with that, but no, they weren’t. Sid and Gus are the epitome of what free women can undertake, what sorts of life they can live, when they have no financial restrictions. And, yes, they are lesbians. You can imagine what might happen to a lesbian couple if they weren’t financially independent. However, in Victorian times, a romantic relationship between women wasn’t frowned upon at all. In fact, it was considered rather sweet for two women to walk down the street holding hands. It was thought that women would grow out of their attachment to each other. And I wanted to portray Sid and Gus as a true Bohemian couple of the times. (And I would have liked them as my next door neighbors.)

6. You’ve collected tons of awards. Tell us what these mean to you.

One thing I can tell you is that it never gets old. Some people get terribly blasé, but I’m always absolutely amazed every time I win, because I know every year that there are a good number of books that were fantastic. I put my awards on a big shelf by my stairway, and I have to see them as I go up and down stairs every day. When I have a depressing day I think, “Oh, well, I have those.” You know, being an author is such a roller coaster ride. One day you click on Google and someone’s said something unkind about your work. The same day, there’s this fantastic interview.

I think we all need to be told all the time that our work is good. When I send a book out to the publisher, I wait to hear back from my editor, “This is good!”What you’re doing is putting out the best part of yourself each time.


Rhys Bowen’s most recent work, Royal Blood, will be out September 7th. To learn more, visit her at

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Christmas Eve That Changed Him--and a Free Book Giveaway

Note: Doug Brendel and I have been friends now for nearly forty years. He's one of the smartest, kindest people I know. He might also be the bravest. For years now, he and his wife have been traveling to Belarus to minister to people. His newest book is called, "Why I Quit the Church." I asked him to share a post with us, and I think you'll be impressed by what you read. Doug's honesty comes through, shining like a star atop a Christmas tree. His words will help remind all of us to think beyond the simplicity of making purchases, and to move closer to the real spirit of this amazing season.

Want to win a copy of Doug's book? Comment on this post. I'll choose one lucky commenter to win a copy of "Why I Quit the Church," a sometimes humorous, but always honest memoir of Doug's personal journey to find the right church for him.--Joanna Campbell Slan

By Doug Brendel

The Christmas Eve that changed my life was not a starry night. It was a grim, gray morning.

Some guy named Mike and his pals had been feeding homeless people in the park every Saturday morning. But that year, Christmas Eve fell on Saturday; Mike’s pals were out of town. He asked our pastor if our church could help.

I was the associate pastor. If Pastor said yes, I was stuck.

“Say no!” my heart screamed.

Pastor said yes.

I was afraid.

I had never encountered a homeless person in my life.

They must be dangerous.

I was a skinny nerd with a paunch.

I had suburbia written all over me.

These people weren’t going to take breakfast from me. They were going to eat my lunch.

That frigid morning, we scrambled dozens of eggs, made gallons of coffee, loaded serving tables into a pickup, drove to the park — and here they came.
Homeless people began stalking toward our vehicles. My internal radar was beeping madly.

“Morning, Mike!” “Merry Christmas!” “Kim! How ya doin’?”

They were coming to help.

Mike’s group had been showing up in the park every Saturday morning for months. These were friends. They looked forward all week to this.

The breakfast line formed. There were 50 or so.

A good-looking young man — could have been a movie star — blond hair, chiseled features.

A round-faced Native American, pockmarked and bloated.

Small red-haired woman, no more than 30, but shriveled and bent.

Guy with one eye.

Jolly fellow, Arkansas twang, face encircled by red curls.

Young guy wearing far too little in such cold. Old guy wearing so many layers, he could hardly move.

Smiley, tousled-haired boy, three fingers missing.

Cackling, greasy-bearded hobo.

Babbling, shiny-faced girl: mental case.

Tall guy, cross-eyed, in an outback safari hat.

Sleepy gray-haired woman wrapped in a blanket.

And I was not afraid.

Even today, years later, I can’t explain what happened to me that day.
I moved among these people, and my heart moved in with them. This lovely mixed bag of miscreants and sad sacks. It felt like a family reunion. I shook hands, grabbed wrists, gave Christmas greetings. I slipped an arm around people’s shoulders, joked and laughed.

You can tell when someone wants to talk, and sometimes that’s when you can move in close, close enough to smell the days-old perspiration permeating their clothing, look them in the eye, put your hand on their elbow, maybe even reach up behind their neck and pull them into a hug. The fabric they’re wearing can be slick with grime. They can reek with the sweet salt stench of sweat. But when you touch them, something happens. It’s not that they come to life; they’re already alive. But they brighten. Or they animate. You might be the only person to touch them that day — or that year.

I kept going back, every Saturday.

They taught me to love.

I became their pastor.

Christmas Eve has never been the same for me.


Doug Brendel’s new book is available at

Monday, December 6, 2010

That Creative Urge

I've decided that I simply have to have a shell covered mirror for the bedroom of my new home in Florida. So I've been shopping. Online. In person. In catalogs. The prices of such mirrors are reasonable until you get to a certain size, the size I need.

I was in a retail store the other day, talking with the owner, who happens to be a friend of my sister Jane. Jane seems to know everyone in southern Florida! I told the owner what I wanted. She had several mirrors with shells, but none of them was large enough.

"Don't buy one," she said. "Make one. Go to Walmart. Find a mirror the size you want. Got a glue gun?"

Of course I have a glue gun. It was one of my first purchases after I arrived in Florida.

"Use your glue gun. Buy shells if you have to or collect them."

Wow. I mean, I'd thought about gluing a shell mirror together, really I had, but I figured there was some trick to the whole enterprise. That the shells would stink. And yes, I know that they can. One year we picked up shells from the beach and I didn't boil them. I usually do, but this year I didn't. We were driving back to St. Louis from South Carolina when we needed something from the trunk. David popped it open and the smell about knocked us over. Lesson Learned: Boil shells to make sure you get all the dead critters out!

So...I'm going to make myself a glorious mirror. Stay tuned! I'll tell you more as I go along!

I'm curious: Do you ever convince yourself that you can't possibly try making something? I know I sure do. And yet, everything we see was made by somebody, wasn't it? So why shouldn't we be the creators?