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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How to Protect Your Library--Books Are Meant to be Loved

Reading to my dogs. Note the "red eyes." Sigh. Am I really demonic?
In this Sunday's New York Times, someone wrote into the Social Q's column with a question that illustrates life as we know it. Seems that "Anonymous in Vermont" had a calamity during the annual Christmas party. Thirty adults and 30 kids were in attendance. Unfortunately, one of the kids puked on Anonymous's e-reader--and ruined it. Now Anonymous wants to know, should he/she ask the parents of Up-Chuck to replace the e-reader?

Since our world seems to be dividing into two camps, those who love e-readers and those who abhor e-readers, I could almost hear the anti-e-reader camp cheering and shouting, "Boo-ya! If it had been a paperback, all would have been fine."

But that's not really true. Without getting too graphic, trust me when I say that if someone pukes on a paper product, it's ruined.

So what's the point here?

I Have Two Great Loves

I love paper and I love my e-reader. They both have their strong points and their weaknesses.

I like traditional books for research because I like to mark them up, use a highlighter and stick Post-It notes inside the book to mark passages I want to revisit. (I know that some of you are shuddering at the thought of marking up a book. My dear friend Chris Clark-Epstein taught me that a book is a resource. She suggested creating my own index in the front of a book so I could quickly find pertinent facts. It was one of those timely suggestions that really transformed my daily life.)

I love my e-reader because it holds so many books, it's easy to read at night (the light that's attached to the cover functions almost like a night light), and books are delivered immediately to me. (Which I admit is my idea of heaven--books that appear magically on request.)

Books Are Made to be Eaten

I once heard an interview with the son of the woman who wrote Pat the Bunny. He suggested that that his mother's book was a mega-seller ate it. Yes, he admitted that kids loved chewing on Pat the Bunny almost as much as they liked having it read to them.

I've kept all my son's books, and I can tell  you that many of them have been masticated. And yes, one was even puked on. Some have ripped pages. Some are discolored. All have been loved.


Keeping kids away from books is not a solution. Having a library of indestructible kids' books is.

Books are meant to be loved, and handled, and enjoyed. And occasionally...puked on.

To properly protect a kid's book, cover the pages with clear Contact paper. Then you can wipe them clean. Better yet, buy two copies. One for "loving" and one for the future.

I started to write: "Don't give them your e-reader without supervision." But after watching my grand-nephew toggle through my sister's iPhone, I can't suggest that. The next generation won't waste time thinking of books as "either/or." They'll simply accept that books will come in paper or in new formats.

After all, it's the content that counts.

Friday, December 2, 2011

An Interview with Julie James: 'My Writing Process Is My Own'

Julie James
My guest--Julie James.

Note: Each year I conduct interviews with famous authors who will be guests at various conferences. Julie will be appearing at Love Is Murder, Feb. 3-5, 2011, in Chicago.)
1. Julie, you were an attorney before you went into writing novels full-time. What is it about training as an attorney that seems to make for such fantastic authors? What did you learn in your work as a lawyer that you still use when you write today?

A. Maybe all us lawyers write simply to escape our day jobs? Kidding! (Mostly.) I think it’s a couple things. First, as a lawyer, you write a lot. Second, as a trial lawyer, your job in many ways is to tell a story—to take the facts and present them in a way that hooks the reader or listener (i.e., the judge or the jury) and convinces them to accept the story as you tell it. Plus, being a lawyer involves many hours sitting in front of a computer. Good training for a full-time career as a writer.

2. In the “traditional” romance novel, the hero and the heroine must be kept apart, usually by misunderstandings. You, however, do a fabulous job of throwing in one crisis after another that keeps your characters apart. Do you plot all this out in advance? How do you keep coming up with believable interruptions rather than the trite “misunderstandings” that blemish a lot of romance novels?

A. I actually find that the Big Misunderstanding isn’t used all that much in romance—at least not the ones I’ve read. From time to time, I’ll see a review of a book that uses the Big Mis as a device, and if it’s not done well readers will call an author out on that fast. That’s not to say you can’t have misunderstandings in a story—of course you can, we have misunderstandings in real life. But if your characters are smart, rational people, you can’t drag out a misunderstanding for too long that could be cleared up by one simple conversation.

In answer to your other question, yes, I do plot out my books in advance. I generally put together about a fifteen to twenty page outline of the book, which I use when writing a synopsis for my editor. But when I’m actually writing the book, I rarely look back at the outline. By that point, the book is developed enough in my head, and I want the freedom to deviate from the outline if that’s where the story takes me.

3. You say you think of your voice as “smart, sexy and sophisticated.” Your characters banter, and they crack jokes in such a way that the dialog reveals a unique voice. How did you find your voice? Do you ever have days when it doesn’t show up for work? If so, how do you reclaim it?

A. LOL, is that what I said about my voice? Apparently, my voice also includes being a little full of myself. : ) I actually wrote screenplays before I began writing novels, and my books certainly tend to be dialogue-focused. My characters are usually somewhat on the sarcastic side. Perhaps a lot on the sarcastic side. And typically there’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the hero and heroine.

Do I ever have days where my voice doesn’t show up for work? Hmm. . . I’d say not really. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get stumped. Sometimes I’m trying to do something with a scene that just isn’t working, sometimes a plot point isn’t developing the way I want, or sometimes I struggle with getting the tone of a scene right. But my voice, so to speak, is typically there.

4. You went to your first RWA convention prior to becoming a published author. Most folks won’t “pop” for a conference until they have a book. What was your thinking? Was it of value to you? Would you recommend other pre-published authors attend conferences before they have a book in hand?

A. I was pretty unfamiliar with the romance genre until I’d learned from my editor, after selling my first book, that I had, in fact, written a romance. (I’d called the book a “romantic comedy” when we sold it.) So for me, it was valuable to attend the conference simply to familiarize myself with the genre. Also, I think conferences offer great networking opportunities—I met several authors at that first conference with whom I continue to be friends. And there are a lot of helpful workshops at these conferences for both published and unpublished authors—I still attend workshops, even though I’ve written five books and now present workshops myself. There’s always room to learn more.

So bottom line, I think attending conferences can be very valuable, and I do recommend them to pre-published authors—IF it’s financially feasible. Let’s be honest, these conferences often aren’t cheap!

5. You are a big believer that “action speaks louder than words.” How do you come up with the right actions to reveal your character’s inner worlds?

A. Hmm, did I say that somewhere? I mean, sure, I believe that—particularly with my characters, who often use sarcasm to deflect their deeper emotions. I’ll give you an example—in my most recent book, A Lot Like Love, the hero (an FBI agent) and the heroine (a billionaire heiress who owns a wine store) have to pretend to be a couple as part of an undercover sting operation. Now, they say they don’t like each other— and there’s a lot of back and forth banter and sarcasm between them. But the hero stops by the heroine’s wine store one night, and sees that her store is so crowded she hasn’t had time to take a break and eat dinner. So he leaves and comes back with a Portillo’s burger and cheese fries for her. And sure, he grumbles through the whole thing and makes all sorts of wry comments about how billionaire heiresses probably don’t eat cheese fries, and how she’s too thin already, but regardless, the actions speak for themselves—she was having a rough day at work so he went out and got her dinner. Even if he’s sort of cranky about it, it’s still romantic.

6. I think you write the BEST sex scenes of any author I’ve ever read. They are hot without being gross. Care to share tips on how to do a scene that sets the reader’s pulse racing without grossing her out?

A. Thank you! And… I’m kind of wondering what books you’re reading where the sex scenes are gross. Because that’s not good for anyone. : )

Honestly, one way I think you can make a scene instantly hotter is with dialogue. A few good old-fashioned dirty words, when well-timed, can get the pulse racing. Also, one of the key things is that the sex scenes need to be a continuation of the characters’ relationship. Meaning, if the hero and heroine have been trading all sorts of quips and banter throughout the book, well, they should continue that playfulness, that teasing, in the bedroom as well. No matter how descriptive, those scenes should be about the emotions the characters are feeling. Heck, even if it’s a one-night stand, and all the guy is thinking is “Oh my god, yes—I’m getting laid!!, well, that’s the emotion you need to convey in the scene. Sex is intimate, and people are (literally) exposing themselves and making themselves vulnerable to another person, so there needs to be some sense of what’s going on in the characters’ heads.

7. Please talk about the differences between the romance market and the mystery market. Is one more important to you than the other? How are the fans different?

A. Candidly, I’m not that familiar with the mystery market. But I’ve written two romantic suspense novels, and I’m sure there is some crossover. What I can say is that romance readers tend to be extremely voracious readers, and I’m truly appreciative that my books have been so well-received by fans of the genre.

8. Go back in time and talk to Julie before her first book was published. What would you say to her?

A. Oh gosh, this is like the, “What would you say to yourself if you could go back to high school” question. I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I don’t know that I have some great, deep answer so instead I’ll give a practical response. One thing I wished I had known before I was published was how much promotion authors need to do themselves. That would not have changed my decision to write—not at all—but I was pretty clueless after selling my first book when it came to marketing. So writers should be aware that this job does, in fact, involve more than actually writing.

And here’s something perhaps a little deeper: I think I would tell myself that my writing process is my own, and not to worry about how other authors write, or—more specifically, how fast they write. I tend to be a slow writer—I do a book a year in a genre in which many authors write two or more books a year. So I’m constantly reminding myself that it doesn’t matter how fast I go—what’s most important is that I’m pleased with the outcome, regardless of how long it took me to get there.

Learn more about Julie by visiting her website:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why Electricians Should Not HONK OFF Their Mystery Writer Clients

Excerpt from my note to my contractor, Rob:

It was a dark and stormy day when they found a body washed up on shore. “Oh, my god, it’s that dreadful electrician,” she thought as she stared down into his white and bloated face with the black electrical tape wrapped around his neck. The fish had eaten his eyeballs out. He lay there half in and half out of the water but he was wearing his gray shirt with his name embroidered happily in red. That—and the fact he wasn’t all the way in or out of the surf--was how she recognized him. He always did things halfway. Two of her driveway lights, the outlets in her garage, and the fixture in her laundry room were all non-functional after his last visit. Of course, his bill was complete. He’d seen to that.

Watching him move back and forth with the force of the tide, she wondered: What happened to him? Could it be another homeowner tired of his complacency and threw him to the sharks off the coast of Jupiter Island? Or had the contractor grown tired of apologizing for the man’s ineptitude and decided to throw in the towel…and the electrician along with it? Was there a more sinister reckoning behind his demise? Perhaps he’d played with the wrong light switch, confused the wires, tripped the circuit breaker one too many times, and POOF!

A crab scuttled up, picked at his flesh and raced back to its hole. A seabird swooped down, landed on the man’s boot, hopped along his leg and pecked at the hairs in his nose.

With a shrug, the woman kicked sand in the corpse’s face and walked on, picking up shells, and thinking, “Hmm. Karma is a booger.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Halloween! You're Invited to an Online Party!

If there's one holiday that gets my vote for TOTAL CUTENESS, it's got to be Halloween.


On Monday, October 31, we'll be inaugurating my new "fan page" on Facebook. Helping with the festivities will be 12 of my best author buds. Here's the lineup:

9 to 9:30 p.m. EST
Mollie Cox Bryan (Scrapbook of Secrets)
Angie Fox (A Tale of Two Demon Slayers)

9:30 to 10 p.m. EST
Betty Hechtman (Behind the Seams)
Laura DiSilveria (Die Buying)

10 to 10:30 p.m. EST
Julie Compton (Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia)
Alan Orloff (The Taste)

10:30 to 11 p.m. EST
Casey Daniels (A Hard Day's Fright)
Vicki Doudera (Killer Listing)
Penny Warner (How to Party Like a Vampire)

11 to 11:30 p.m. EST
Joanna Campbell Slan (Make, Take, Murder)
Margaret Grace (Murder in Miniature)

Special "drop in" guests will be Linda O. Johnston (The More the Terrier) and Monica Ferris (Buttons and Bones).

We'll be giving away books, books, and more books! Just come to my new Facebook Fan Page and click "LIKE" or ask to be my FRIEND. (Which you are, aren't you?)


In the spirit of the spirits, I make these two adorable "slam" albums. Here's a great explanation of how to create the body of the albums: SLAM

Now on to the fun part...

Both "spiders" are just buttons with googly eyes. To one, I attached wire legs. To the other I cut a thin strip of blackish page and folded it accordian-style. That became a leg.

Is this fun or what?

Happy Halloween!

P.S. READY, SCRAP, SHOOT is now available for pre-order!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I Started (Writing My) Novel to be Polite: An Interview with Julie Hyzy

I don't remember when I met Julie. She's one of those people who is so nice and so easy to be with that she's like a long-lost pal the moment you are introduced. I interviewed her for the Love Is Murder newsletter. Her answers are pure Julie!


JCS: Julie, you started as a short story writer convinced she couldn’t finish a book. Tell us about your friendship with Michael Black and the good advice he gave you. Didn’t the two of you also collaborate? How did that work?

click to see a larger versionJH: Absolutely true. I'd dreamed of being a writer since I was a kid, but I had no clue how to go about it. Once my daughters were old enough to get breakfast for themselves, I decided to find out how to get myself published. That was just about ten years ago, but with all the changes in the publishing world of late, it feels like it's been much longer. Anyway, I thought I'd do best if I could find a writing group.

After a couple of detours, I happened upon The Southland Scribes. At that point I'd written a few Star Trek short stories, hoping to get into one of their annual anthologies (I did, eventually, three times!). The Southland Scribes, however, was a novel writing group. They were the only game in town, so I told them I wrote novels. Total lie. As it turned out, they welcomed me warmly and I shouldn't have worried. Mike Black was part of that group at the time. He was the most-learned, most-published member and was extremely generous with all his hard-won information. He encouraged me to write more, and I was thrilled to comply. Heck, getting feedback from him (and from the group) was gold. I'd never had anyone critique me before and I learned so much.

After a while, Mike suggested I try my hand at novel writing. I demurred initially because I didn't think I had the stick-to-itive-ness I'd need to stay with a novel for months. But he kept telling me he thought I could do it and that it was my logical next step. Here's the honest truth: I started a novel to be polite. He'd been so helpful and I'd learned so much that I felt I owed him to at least try. I didn't think I'd finish. He also talked me through outlining a novel, which helped a great deal. Nowadays I sort of outline with a much different process, but back then my outline was my lifeline. I started the novel to be polite, and found -- to my everlasting surprised -- how much I loved the freedom of novel writing. It was so great. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start another. So I did.

Mike and I collaborated on DEAD RINGER. Kind of a fluke how that came about. There was a short story contest going on while we were critiquing one another. I had an idea for it and we worked together on bringing it to life. It didn't see publication then (it did later, elsewhere), but we found the exercise to be fun. We joked around about writing a novel together and we tied the endings of our respective novels together in anticipation of someday collaborating. I think working on that short story had given us so much enjoyment that we decided to go for it sooner than I'd expected (I had a book deadline at the same time so I wound up writing two books at once). Total blast. I know I gave Mike fits because he had a plan in mind for the plot and I tended to deviate often (and wildly). But I think I added a few good things to the mix, too.

We took turns telling the story in first person. Could have been confusing, but I think it turned out okay. It gave me a chance to have Alex St. James, my Chicago news researcher, work with a Mike's Ron Shade. One of our biggest hurdles was the fact that we both had secondary characters named George. But we managed to work around that. And even though I know I caused Mike a great deal of angst during the process, I think we're both very happy with how the final story turned out.

JCS: You’ve offered a few stand-alone novels on Kindle. Why? How’s that going for you? With two successful series, why did you care to add more titles?
My Kindle/Nook titles are mostly my out-of-print titles, brought back to life. Alex St. James went out of print a few years ago and publishing them as ebooks gives me a chance to introduce her to new readers. So far, it's going well. I did put up one original novel, PLAYING WITH MATCHES, under my N.C. (not cozy) Hyzy pseudonym. That one hasn't really found an audience yet. It's slightly harder edged, but I like Riley. She's a private investigator in Chicago, making ends meet by doing background checks for an upscale dating service. I had so much fun writing that one! I hope to add to Alex's adventures first and then continue writing for Riley. You asked why I care to add more titles? Simple answer: I love to write and there are far more stories in my head than I can ever put to paper (or pixels).

JCS:  Where did you get the idea for Ollie, the White House Chef? What was the biggest obstacle you faced in getting that series published? Do you have any concerns that the FBI or CIA will come knocking on your door because you plot against the president? (Okay, a “mythical” president, but still.) How do you do your research?

JH: Everybody asks that question! Here's how it went: You know we have our first ever female executive chef in the White House, right? Her name is Cristeta Comerford. (Usually when I get to that point in answering the question, people start tuning me out. But there's more.) Cozy mysteries, or amateur sleuth mysteries are dependent on the protagonist stumbling over dead bodies or conspiracies on a regular basis.

Where better than in the White House? The thing is, I didn't come up with the actual concept. The late Marty Greenberg did, and he asked me to write it. I wasn't given a series bible or any plot lines, I was given the description: "female White House chef" and told to run with it. So, even though Tekno (Marty's company) owns the copyright, I did come up with Ollie and her cohorts on my own.

After five novels written and the sixth one in the works, Ollie's become a very good friend. Although I can usually predict what she plans to do next, she does have a knack for surprising me.

Do I think the FBI and CIA will come to my door? Probably not. I've done so much research so far, acquiring all sorts of White House books and DVDs, talking to current and former staff members and Secret Service agents, and plugging suspicious search terms into my browser, that if they really thought I might pose a threat, I'd have heard from them by now. Unless of course, I'm under surveillance and I don't even know it. Hmm... I do have two FBI agents living next door. You think that may be a coincidence?

JCS:  Tell us about Grace from your Manor House mysteries. How did you plot such a complicated book? You also manage to put a lot of tension into Grace’s relationships. First with her crush, Jack, and then with Frances, her assistant. Did you plan for that or did it evolve naturally from the characters?

JH: Thank you so much! I'm thrilled to know you enjoyed it.

Grace and the Manor House series is a far more personal series for me than WHChef is. I don't have an awful sister, nor do I have a crush on a man hiding his past, but I did find out about a major family secret after my mother died, much the way Grace did. It was a huge story, but the moment I heard it, I knew it was true. It was as though all the pieces in our family history that didn't fit suddenly came together. Quite a revelation, and having gone through such an upheaval, I'm able to understand exactly what Grace is going through. They say to write what you know... and I have, sort of. I've also written to discover more of what I want to know.

I did plan for a book with complicated relationships. I have lots of plans for Grace going forward, and I think readers will enjoy watching her evolve and become stronger as she learns more about herself and as she interacts with the people in her life. I adore writing for Frances. She's just so much fun and although she isn't based on a real person, she does share qualities with several people I've met in my life. She and Bennett (Marshfield's elderly owner) may just be my two favorite characters in that series.

When the first book came out, a great many people wrote very nice reviews about it. One reviewer didn't like the fact that there were so many characters. Isn't it funny how authors give so much weight to the negative comments? Anyway, I digress. That one reviewer dinged me over the huge cast. I was surprised, initially, and a little hurt (who doesn't get hurt by a bad review?) but then realized that I shouldn't let one person's opinion waylay me from my plans. I created a large cast because I have many, many stories to tell.

JCS:  Your bio is incredibly short on your website. You neglected to tell readers about your work with MWA and your awards. You’ve won an Anthony, a Barry, and a Lovey. Tell us about what it feels like to be so honored. (Julie, you have to be one of the most modest authors around!) You’d written other books before. What “came together” for you to make your White House series so yummy?

JH:  Oh... I have to tell you, the night of the Anthony win was the most magical night ever. That came just two days after winning the Barry Award, and I was flying as high as a person could. That's why I dedicated BUFFALO WEST WING to everyone from Bouchercon 2009. For me, that was truly the best Bouchercon ever. And winning the Lovey... wow. There's nothing quite like being home among so many wonderful people -- people I love -- who show me such warm and wonderful support. I am the luckiest person in the world and I can't thank everyone enough for welcoming me and my characters into the mystery community.

Honestly, being nominated is the true honor. I remember telling everyone that I didn't want Bouchercon 2009 to arrive because then I could no longer call myself an Anthony or Barry nominee. Then it would be over. I had no idea I had any chance of winning these awards.

Magical. Really. That's what it was.

What came together to make all this happen? There's only one answer: Amazing, supportive readers. Without them, I would be nowhere.

JCS:  How many daughters do you have? And how many at home? How do you manage to write and keep up with the demands of a busy household?

JH: We have three fabulous daughters. Robyn is a full-time illustrator who has done work for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine among others. Sara is in graduate school to become a special education teacher for the visually impaired, and Biz (Elizabeth) is in college now. She recently declared herself an English major, but hopes to pursue theater as well. All three are happy, compassionate, and bright. We're very proud of them. This fall, for the first time, we're empty nesters and the household is suddenly quiet. Far less busy than it's been in the past. That's not to say the girls don't call on mom fairly often -- they do. But I do find myself with more time to write now than I ever had before.

JCS:  Like so many of us female mystery authors, you were hooked on Nancy Drew at an early age. How has that influenced your career? I wonder what will charm the next generation of mystery authors. What do you think?

JH: How has it influenced my career? Oh my gosh, I wanted to BE Nancy Drew. I still do. Writing mysteries allows me to walk in her shoes. Allows me to have adventures and put broken pieces back together and set the world right. I love it! Yes, Nancy was my role model and to this day, I try to fashion my characters after her. No, they don't all have titian hair, or pop off to Machu Picchu on a whim. Nor do they always get along with the local police, but they do share Nancy's world view. They take the high road (most of the time) and try to see the good in people.

Ollie is far more sure of herself (like Nancy) than Grace is, but Grace comes from a different background and hasn't experienced the family support Ollie has always enjoyed. I see Nancy in them both.

As to your other question I, too, wonder who will charm the next generation. I do love Flavia de Luce, but she's young. Nancy had her own car and was a more modern young woman, even in the 1930s when she first burst upon the scene. As much as I enjoyed THE HUNGER GAMES, I don't see Katniss Everdeen as a role model. But Hermoine Granger certainly is. She would be my choice, even without magical skills. Impossible to predict at this point, but certainly fun to guess!


Julie Hyzy is the author of the bestselling Manor House Mysteries and White House Chef Mysteries. Visit her at

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dangerous Dames Tour

Prepare for a perilously good time when the “Dangerous Dames’’ visit the Raleigh-Durham area for a book tour, Oct. 13-17. Deborah Sharp, Julie Compton, and Joanna Campbell Slan live up to their billing: They kill people for a living -- at least fictionally. In reality, the three nationally known mystery authors are perfectly nice women with families and pets and houses with mortgages. There’s not a homicidal maniac among them, except when it comes to plotting their novels. However, at least one of the Dames confesses to considering murder while undergoing editing. Several appearances are scheduled throughout the area. (See schedule below.)

Most will feature the “Dangerous Dames’’ in a panel discussion. Moderating is Molly Weston, who blogs and lectures about mysteries. An avid Tarheels fan, Weston also edits the Sisters In Crime journal, inSinC.

Here’s more on this lethal literary trio:
Julie Compton mined her training as a lawyer to write her debut, Tell No Lies. Aptly described as part Scott Turow and part Jodi Picoult, the legal thriller earned a starred review from Kirkus, which called it a "taut, tense cautionary tale … with courtroom drama and a surprise ending." Her most recent release, Rescuing Olivia, was praised by Publisher's Weekly as an "intense, entertaining second novel" with a "super-satisfying resolution."

Compton, who left the practice of law to write full-time, now considers herself a recovering attorney. She hopes to never fall off the wagon. She lives near Orlando, Florida. 

Deborah Sharp, a former reporter for USA Today, traded in sad news stories for funny fiction. She sets her ''Mace Bauer Mysteries'' in a sweet-tea-and-barbecue slice of her native Florida. Sharp rode a horse across the state to research her second book, and landed on NBC's Today show in a tacky wedding veil for her third. Mama Sees Stars, her fourth, garnered a starred review in Library Journal: “This zany fourth entry . . . is a feature worthy of the big screen.’’
Sharp and her TV reporter husband, Kerry Sanders, live in Fort Lauderdale. No kids. No pets. They had goldfish once. Turned out badly.

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of the “Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series’’ and a dozen other books. Paper, Scissors, Death -- the first book in the mystery series -- was an Agatha Award Finalist. It is also one of Kindle's top 50 bestselling books. Her most recent release in the series is Make, Take, Murder. Slan’s newest mystery series starring Jane Eyre as an amateur sleuth will be released in July 2012, from Berkley. When she isn't traveling with the Dangerous Dames, she divides her time between Washington, DC, and Jupiter Island, Fla.

Dangerous Dames Schedule

Friday, October 14, noon — Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill

7:00 — Page-Walker Cultural Arts Center, Cary, co-sponsored by the Cary Library

Saturday, October 15, 2:00 — McIntyre's Fine Books, Fearrington Village, Pittsboro

Sunday, October 16, 2:00 — Halle Center, Apex, co-sponsored by Eva Perry Library

Monday, October 17, noon — Holly Springs Library (brown bag lunch)

3:00 — West Regional Library, Morrisville
And on the fifth day, they collapsed. (Kidding!)

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Right Editor Can Change Your Life: An Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan

1. JCS—I guess the big question is why? Hank, you were/are already an award-winning reporter. A huge success. So why did you decide you wanted to add being an author to your list of accomplishments?

HPR--Well, thank you. Your question made me stop and think—because it wasn’t so much “author” I was going I just had this terrific idea for a story. You know how when you have a good idea, you just know it? And I got a strange spam in my email one day, and it crossed my mind—maybe it’s a secret message. And I just—stopped in my tracks. It was such a perfect plot for a mystery novel, and I just—knew it. And from that moment I was obsessed with writing the story of whether there could be secret messages in computer spam, and how that would work, and who would do it...and why. And that became PRIME TIME!

2. JCS—The original draft of Prime Time was not the same as the draft that eventually got published. Would you share with us what happened? What changes you made? I know that your agent (or was it the editor) didn’t know if you could revise your book, but you did. How hard was that? Most folks get stuck in a mental rut and can’t make changes in tone, but you did. How?

HPR--So interesting. The initial draft of PRIME TIME—well, you have to remember, I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve been writing television news stories and investigative reporter for more than 30 years, so I figured a story is a story, how hard can it be? Which was, of course, absurd.

Anyway, the first draft of PRIME TIME was lighter, funnier, and the main character Charlotte McNally was a little—ditzy and self-centered. It was chick lit, no question, and I finished it just as the chick lit genre was crashing.

I got the nicest rejection from an editor—who said, essentially, she loved the whole thing—except for the tone. And she told my agent she’d be interested in reading it if I could make it less “chick lit” and more “women’s fiction” mystery.

Well, after so long in TV, I’ve had editors say: can you make it more investigative? Or more featurey? Or shorter? Or longer? Can you do it like—a SONG? (Okay, kidding. ) But the idea of re-editing for tone was not outrageous to me. I saw the editor’s point. And it was a fascinating thought.

My agent said, “I don’t think you can do it.” (She was my agent at the time. I now have a different agent.)

I’ll never know if she was telling the truth, or trying to challenge me.

But I had no doubt I could do it.

I just thought of the story in a different way—and went through every line and scene, thinking: what would make my characters have more depth? Be more thoughtful? Stronger? Be more connected to the real world and real conflicts? What would make people care?

I went through the whole thing wearing that filter. And so interesting—the result was EXACTLY the same plot. Exactly. But it just had a different feel.

Get the right editor—and it can change your life.

3. JCS—Your father is a music critic. What did you learn from him that has an impact on your career as a writer? On how you take criticism? On how you approach the craft of writing?

HPR--I’ve never thought about that. (He’ll be happy to hear that, huh?) My dad is very—honorable. Very reliable. Very sincere and tolerant and loving. (He left the newspaper to join the foreign service, and retired after 35 years as a diplomat.) He’s written two non-fiction books on American music, and he’s incredibly organized about it. SO there’s that.

He’s also incredibly straightforward. When he read one the first things I wrote (not one of the Charlie McNally books), he said: “Honey, this is really a good start. But there’s a thing called ‘voice.’ And you don’t have it.”

I remember that so well! Back then, I had no idea what he was talking about. But it made me think about what he meant, and about authenticity. That was—fifteen years ago, I guess.

My stepfather was a really brilliant lawyer. From him I learned to question everything. And to be persistent. And never to be satisfied until something is the best it can be.

4. JCS—Your pacing is exquisite. You’ve said that everything must serve the story. Do you have any sorts of tests you use to check for pacing? What’s your plotting process? How do you know if you’ve gotten bogged down—and what do you do to speed up the drama?

HPR--Thank you! (These questions are so nice…) And yes, of course, the story is the only thing that matters!

When I do long-form television stories, I print out my draft scripts, and use a pink magic marker to highlight the “cool parts.” That’s what I call them, I know it sounds silly. If the cool parts are too smooshed together, or it there’s too much time without one, I know I have a pacing problem.

Same with my book manuscripts. It’s like—leading someone though the forest, by telling them there might be a gold coin on the path along the way. To keep them going, the gold coins have to be there, and you want to make sure there are enough of them along the path so they continue with their journey, and can’t resist taking the next steps to get the next one.

See what I mean? It’s the same with writing a page-turner. There has to be a compelling thing, a big question or an important conflict or a critical decision—something that makes the reader unable to stop.

And how do I know? Besides “pinking,” I just read over what I typed the day before. If my mind wanders, or if I find myself thinking, yeah yeah, blah blah , get on with it—then I know I’ve got to ratchet up the suspense and timing. I say: why do I care about what’s happened here? And then I do something to make myself care.

The “plotting process”? Cue crazed laughter. I usually start with one cool, unique element. The secret messages in spam, or in DRIVE TIME, they way a certain code would work. (You’ll never look at parking garages the same way!) Then I mull over—with my characters—what would REALLY happen next? And then, I see.

I know, that’s not helpful. What can I tell you? The ideas come when they’re meant to come. (So far. Knock on wood.)

5. JCS—Undoubtedly, you are the nicest person in the world. I mean, everyone thinks she’s/he’s your best friend. Although you will soon be building an addition to your home to house all your awards, you are always friendly, approachable, and kind. Are you really that nice? What keeps you so grounded? Is this a career strategy or a personal quirk or a genetic trait?

HPR--I’m laughing too hard to answer this. People are often surprised that I’m “nice”—in my job as investigative reporter, I’m always confrontational, demanding, critical. I guess...I try to remember we’re all doing the best we can, you know, even if it doesn’t always come out that way.

I also sort of live by the mantra—“you never know.” You never know what’s good or bad when it happens, right? And people always say: “someday we’ll laugh about this.” I say—laugh sooner.

6. JCS—Your mother must be one of the smartest women on the planet, and I know her advice to you has been invaluable. Could you share some of her wisdom? Tell us how that governs your actions as an author and a person.

HPR—Oh, just ask her! (Couldn’t resist, mom.) She’s incredibly—supportive, but never lets me off the hook. When I won my most recent Emmy (yes, the 27th) she said—Oh, honey, do you still care about that?

But you’re right, Joanna, she is amazing. I called her when I was in the midst of Prime Time, about halfway through, and I said Mom, I love this book, it’s funny, it’s original, and I love the characters. But this is much more difficult than I ever could have imagined. I’m just—not sure I can finish it.

And there was this pause, and then she said “Well, honey, you will if you want to.”

And, blam. That was all I needed to hear. I think about that all the time. I realized that my future was in my hands. Depending on my desire, and my passion, and my hard work.

7. JCS—How much of you is Charlie? How are you different? Does her relationship with Josh parallel your relationship with Jonathan? Do you ever worry about revealing too much of yourself and your inner fears through Charlie?

HPR—Fine fine fine. A lot of Charlie is me. She’s younger than I am, yes, and funnier, and a better driver, and a little more confident. But she—as I was for many years—is married to her job in television, and wonders what happens when the camera doesn’t love her anymore. And yes, actually, I did worry about becoming the poster child for “aging women in television.” I guess that happened, but turns out, I’m happy with that!

Fictional heartthrob Josh parallels real-life heartthrob husband Jonathan? Ah..I have to say, not at all. They’re both terrific. And I adore them both. But really? Josh is completely fictional, and their relationship is very different.

8. JCS—Tell us about your schedule. You’re an indefatigable promoter. You’ve just sold a new suspense series. You write short stories. You’re always on the road. How do you keep all those balls in the air? Do you ever have any Down Time? (That’s a suggestion for another title, eh?) How do you relax or do you?

HPR—Yes, my new series! I’m incredibly happy with the whole thing—the first is THE OTHER WOMAN, and it’s a novel of suspense about a disgraced TV reporter on the trial of an ex-governor’s secret mistress. (And I was finished with the book before Arnold and Maria’s situation. So that was quite amazing.) As one character in THE OTHER WOMAN says: “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

I think the log line might be: Seduction, betrayal and murder—it’s going to take more than votes to win this election.

It’ll be out in hardcover from Forge Books in 2012, and the next one in 2013. (The amazing Lisa Scottoline says: A killer plot, compelling characters and non-stop suspense. Riveting!")

I can do the crazy schedule because I love it. I just—love it. And Jonathan is incredibly supportive. Sleep was the first to go, then cooking, then laundry. But we’ve worked that out. Well, not the sleeping so much, but I’ve learned to go on less.

Relaxing? Hobbies? Here’s a real confession: I have a very hard time with that. I have no hobbies. It’s probably a problem, actually. But for now, I’ll just ignore that.

9. JCS—What’s the best writing advice you can share?

HPR—It’s all fine. It’s fine, and if it’s not fine now, it’ll be fine later. You can always fix it, you can always make it better, things always work .Face your problems, and they’re never as bad as they seem at first. There’s a motto on my bulletin board: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That’s how I try to think about things. I just figure—it’ll work. Maybe it’ll be in a way you didn’t predict, you know? But maybe that’ll be even better.

You can worry along the way, or you can not worry. And you’ll arrive at EXACTLY the same place. So why not enjoy it?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Accept the Restrictions: An Interview with Donald Bain

Note: Donald Bain will be a featured author at the 2012 Love Is Murder Mystery Conference, Feb. 3-5 in Chicago.  I interviewed him for the LIM newsletter.

1. JCS--You are in the unusual position of writing in partnership with someone who doesn’t exist, Jessica Fletcher. Angela Lansbury told me that she was in your publisher’s offices and someone complimented her on her book series. She told them, “But I don’t write those books.” Obviously, your unique situation is confusing. Care to comment?

DB--Because many of the 110 books I’ve written were ghostwritten for other people, I suppose that “collaborating” with a fictitious TV character isn’t so unusual. Giving us a dual byline was, of course, a marketing move by the publisher. When I make appearances there sometimes are people who are disappointed that I’m not Angela Lansbury (I apologize to them for not wearing basic black with pearls). And there is at least one fan who is really confused. She e-mailed me to say that she was amazed how much Jessica Fletcher looks like Angela Lansbury. Angela has told me the same thing that she told you, that she’s been stopped in airports and on the street by people who thank her for having written the books. She always graciously thanks them for their kind words and moves on. So far the confusion hasn’t negatively impacted my relationship with Jessica; at least I don’t think it has.

2. JCS--Your first Jessica Fletcher book came out two years before the series ended. What are the challenges of writing a book based on a TV program? Fans can get pretty snarky if an author messes with the perceived canon of an icon. Did that worry you? Did you ever have any problems with that? What advice might you share with someone who wanted to write about a pre-existing character?

DB--You’re right, of course. Writing a media tie-in book poses certain problems, but none that can’t be overcome. I owe it to fans of the “Murder, She Wrote” TV show to be faithful to the Jessica Fletcher character, as well as to other characters and to the tone of the series overall. Before I started writing the first novel 22 years ago I watched as many episodes of the show as possible, and didn’t commence writing until I felt confident that I had all the nuances down pat. Even then I missed a few. For instance, I didn’t pick up on the fact that Jessica doesn’t drive a car, and had her behind the wheel in the first book, Gin & Daggers. And there have been other slips, although they’ve become fewer as I continued writing the series. (There are now 37 books and a new 3-book contract. Remarkably every one of them is still in print).

My advice to writer who might end up basing a novel on a pre-existing character is to accept that there will be restrictions on what you can have that character do and say. Having been handed a wonderful character like Jessica Fletcher, who was created by others and given life by Angela Lansbury, is a gift for which I’m thankful. On the other hand it is limiting to an extent because I can’t deviate from that character’s basic nature, philosophies, likes and dislikes. It’s a trade-off that I’m perfectly happy with.

3. JCS--Under your direction, Jessica has gone to some pretty nifty places like Moscow and Manhattan. She’s done some way-cool things—and I know that you always do a site visit. Tell us a bit about how you do your research. Your wife Renée is involved. Tell us about how she helps you with your research, please. In SKATING ON THIN ICE, you shared the sort of insider info on skating, learning to skate, etc., that all authors dream of scoping out. Any tips on going beyond the superficial information?

Renée and I are true collaborators on the series, and have been for the past dozen or so books. We research the books together, brainstorming where to set the next book, and arranging travel to those places, which includes appointments with local law enforcement officials, politicians, local characters whose lives might lend color to the story, and others who can provide an interesting slant. We travel with cameras, a tape recorder, and notebooks and try to nail down everything about the setting as possible. Our readers expect details to be accurate, and we strive to achieve that. Of course we also turn to the best travel books and the Internet as other sources of information.

The research for SKATING ON THIN ICE came primarily from Renée’s lifelong love of figure skating and the many other skaters with whom she’s been involved. She skates a few times a week and interviewed her skating instructors, rink operators, Zamboni drivers, and anyone else who had something to add to the story.

To answer your final question about tips on going beyond superficial information, I suggest that when researching factual material for a novel that you seek the answers in the children’s section of the library. Too much information bogs down a good story. What’s contained in children’s books on any subject gives the writer just about the right amount of background to weave into the story.

4. JCS--Some authors are highly resistant to work for hire or using a pen name. Forgive me if I misunderstand your position, but is the Murder She Wrote series work-for-hire? If so, what suggestions can you make for any writer considering work-for-hire? If it is not, would you please educate me about what it is? It looks like there would be obvious upsides and downsides to your situation. Dish.

DB--The term work-for-hire denotes a writing assignment that involves a flat fee payment, without financial participation in the project. I’ve done those, especially earlier in my career, and would do others provided the flat fee was large enough. “Murder, She Wrote” is not a work-for-hire project; I participate in royalties from all the books. Having a financial piece of the action serves to motivate a writer, although too many projects are offered in which the up-front money is small on the premise that the writer will get rich on the back end. When one of my books, COFFEE, TEA OR ME? was published back in the 60s it was a runaway success and generated numerous motion picture offers. It also spawned an offer to turn it into a Broadway musical comedy by stage luminaries Anita Loos and Jule Styne. They offered a small advance with a generous financial participation if the show was a success. I opted for the bigger up-front money from (because I needed it), and have regretted the decision to this day.

Writers accept work-for-hire assignments because they need the money. That’s all there is to it.

5. JCS--You advise authors to develop a strong storyline. What’s your process? How detailed is your working outline?

DB--“Story” is everything in a novel. Assuming that a novelist can write coherently and correctly, the story that he or she wants to tell becomes paramount. All the good writing in the world can’t salvage a poorly conceived and constructed plot. Renée and I come up with a storyline of about six or seven pages before starting to write, and then watch as the story begins to deviate from the original outline. We discuss each scene before it’s written. At the same time we keep going back over what we’ve already written to refine, add salient material, and ensure that the plot is staying on track. We don’t develop a long, detailed outline before writing. Some writers do, and need it. We prefer a looser storyline in which we know how the book will start, where it will go in general terms, and how it will end. But even then we find that what we considered solid major plot points change as the story progresses.

6. JCS--You have written a variety of genres, as well as non-fiction. (Can a genre be non-fiction? Hmmm. I don’t know!) Writers are typically told NOT to do that. But obviously, you’ve been very successful. Were you ever warned off of writing in different genres? What skill set stays the same no matter what you write?

DB--Good writing is good writing no matter what the genre. I disagree that a writer shouldn’t switch genres. Having to address a different sort of book after writing another type can refresh and reinvigorate a writer. I learn from everything I write, be it a western, murder mystery, historical romantic novel, business advice book, or comedy. To me being a professional writer means being able to do just that. But a writer must also be realistic when choosing assignments. For instance I would never agree to write a book about finance because I find that topic daunting and beyond my ability to absorb it. I’m also careful to not lend my name and writing ability to the sort of book that would turn off readers of the “Murder, She Wrote” novels, who appreciate the series’ lack of explicit sex, gore, and foul language. We receive many e-mails from teenagers who enjoy the novels, as well as from parents who use the books to jump-start their children into a reading habit.

7. JCS--You’re a proud graduate of Purdue University, as was my father and my sister. Purdue isn’t usually the first school that springs to mind when people think of a launching pad for authors. Comment?

DB--Hail Purdue! When I went to Purdue I never intended to be a writer. I went there because of its excellent educational radio and TV program, and worked in that field before turning to writing. What Purdue gave me was a sense of a larger world and the people who inhabit it, and I love going back each year to lecture to creative writing students.

8. JCS--Mr. Bain, you and I are the only two people I know who are fiction writers and who have won Silver Anvils. How did your work in PR help prepare you to become a successful author?

DB--Everything in my life has helped prepare me to become an author—being a salesman, my three years as an officer in the Air Force, performing as a jazz musician, working in radio and TV, learning to fly—and my years as a PR executive, primarily in the airline industry. Everything gets used when I write. My PR experiences brought me into contact with a wide variety of people, always a good thing for a writer. It also sharpened my ability to explain concepts and things in writing. And, of course, it has helped tremendously in marketing my own books.

For more information about Donald Bain, visit his website.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Signing in St. Louis

I had the best time in St. Louis. I did a signing at my friend Mary Pillsbury's store in LaChateau across from Frontenac Plaza. Her store is totally elegant, and her jewelry is just divine.

Mary's store is mentioned on page 335 of Make, Take, Murder
Isn't Mary's store beautiful? So elegant.

That same night I went to Pudd'nhead Books in Webster Groves, where I met with my friends and longtime fans: Stephanie, Christine, Candy and Linda. They have been coming to see me at Pudd'nhead for the past three years. How phenomenal is that? I really appreciate them taking the time to visit with me. Stephanie has already read Make, Take, Murder twice!

Left to right: Stephanie Koenig, Christine Schuetz, me, Candy Brown, and Linda Burmeister.

And the surprise of the evening was two new fans, Jeannie and Mary. It was fun to meet them, and I enjoyed getting to know them. Later, I went out for dinner with my good friend Karen DG. She's been a great help with my books, as she's a super editor. Very precise. We got caught up despite the fact that the restaurant we chose had a REALLY, REALLY loud band.

Okay, I look weird, but it was the end of a long day! I'm with Jeannie Boettcher and Mary Shasserre

The next day, I signed at Dream House and Tea Room. We had sold so many books at Mary's and at Pudd'nhead that we had to take orders from the women who came to hear me. Judy Macher owns the Dream House and Tea Room along with her partner Tracy. I have many fond memories of the place as my mother and I used to go there for lunch.

After my signing, I met with my dear friend Dana C. We walked around the Chesterfield Mall to get our exercise. Dana used to be my Jazzercise instructor, so we always try to include a bit of sweat in our meetings. Okay, I was sweaty and she glowed! Then she helped me plot Book #6 in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. I value Dana's opinion. She's a friend and a fan, so she told me what she wanted to have happen--and that matters. Sometimes we authors get too cute for our own good.

Tomorrow I go to O'Fallon, Illinois, to visit my friend Ann Farnen at Scrapbook Factory.

Does it count as a book tour if you mainly visit with old friends? I hope so. Because to me, that's the best part!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Answers? I've Got a Few

QUESTION: When will Make, Take, Murder be available on Kindle or Nook?

ANSWER: I have no idea. See, my publisher converts the files to a format that e-publisher can use. Then it's up to the e-publishers (Amazon or Barnes & Noble) to post the books. (Feel free to bug Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And tell me what you find out, okay?)


QUESTION: Will Make, Take, Murder be available in large print?

ANSWER: I have no idea. So far, Wheeler Publishing has purchased large print rights to the other books in the series. You can contact them at Thorndike Press.


QUESTION: What's the next book in the series and when will it be out?

ANSWER: I don't know. I used a working title of Ink, Red, Dead, but that's been changed. The publication date will be April, 2012. I have turned the book in.


QUESTION: Will there be more books in the series after the book formerly known as Ink, Red, Dead?

ANSWER: I don't know. My editor has said she wants another book. My agent is planning on talking to my editor. I've written three chapters of a 6th book.


QUESTION: Is it true you are writing another series? What's it about?

ANSWER: I've been blessed to sell a new series featuring Jane Eyre as an amateur sleuth. The first in that series will be out Spring or Summer 2012. The publisher is Berkley, and part of the title will be The Jane Eyre Chronicles.


QUESTION: Joanna, how can you know so little?

ANSWER: I'm a mom. We work on a need to know basis. Seriously, authors have control over the universe they create, not over the details of the publishing world. I really do adore both my publishers. Obviously they have superlative taste! So when I get more concrete info, I'll pass it along. One nice tidbit of news...while I was at Malice Domestic my agent was contacted about foreign rights to The Jane Eyre Chronicles. That's a very good sign indeed!


QUESTION: Where do you live these days?

ANSWER: I divide my time between Washington, DC, and Jupiter Island, Florida. If you become my friend on Facebook, you'll see that I often post photos from both places.


QUESTION: How can I get an autographed copy of Make, Take, Murder?

ANSWER: There are lots of ways. 1.) Call Mystery Lovers Bookshop at (412) 828-4877. They have copies. 2.) Call ScrapbooksPlus! at
(703) 263-9503 3.) Email me at and put BOOKPLATE in your subject line. Then tell me how you want me to personalize a bookplate, share your postal address with me, and I'll pop a bookplate in the mail to you. (A bookplate is a fancy sticker.) 4.) Come to one of my signings. I try to post them at

He Beat Her Regularly--and No One Said a Word

Some stories stick with you a long, long time. Twenty years ago, a friend named Rob recounted a horrifying scene that he had witnessed at a local country club. Rob was seated where he could observe a group of members who had been drinking heavily. One of them, a prominent local man, grabbed his wife by the crotch and announced to everyone, “See this? I bought and paid for it. None of you can afford it!”

Rob later learned that this man regularly beat his wife, but the local doctors “owed” him, so they patched her up and sent her home. All the best local attorneys were in his debt as well, so there was nowhere for this woman to turn.

I knew of this man and his wife. After all, they were regulars on the society pages. I’d seen the woman around town and I often admired her beautiful clothes and jewelry. Now I winced to think of the shame and pain that she lived with daily.

In Make, Take, Murder, I called this abused woman Cindy Gambrowski. In the first scene of the book, my protagonist Kiki Lowenstein is Dumpster-diving for her lost paycheck when she reaches into a pile of trash and pulls up Cindy’s severed leg. (And yes, Gambrowski is a bit of a pun, since “gam” is slang for an especially attractive female leg.)

To write accurately about Cindy’s life, I consulted with an expert on domestic violence. I also talked to a judge and an attorney to get the legalities right.

I tried to put myself in Cindy’s place. To the outside world, she has everything. But she’s living in a cruel cage, and her jailer is her husband. Knowing that abusers don’t stop, I wondered, “What might a woman risk to be free?”

Readers will quickly learn that Cindy isn’t the only abused woman in the book. Again, my domestic violence expert filled me in on what happens when a woman with kids tries to escape her persecutor. My expert also explained to me one of the common ways that an abuser often tracks down his family. I also learned about some of the psychological baggage that later marks the psyche of an abused woman.

Even though I outline, there are often surprises along the way. In this book, I decided to create WAR, the Women’s Above-ground Railroad, a fictitious organization that would assist women who needed to escape from abusers. My imagination conjured up a dedicated and secretive group of women who would help their frightened sisters adopt new identities in new towns.

Wow, was I ever shocked when my domestic abuse expert told me that such an organization really does exist!

When I finished the book, I felt so passionate about the cause that I donated a portion of my advance to Lydia’s House, which provides transitional housing for abused women and their children in the St. Louis area. I also included information about abuse in my acknowledgement section. It’s my hope that one of my readers might recognize the signs of an abusive relationship early enough that she can escape the sort of torture that Cindy Gambrowski endured.

Note: The "official" release date for Make, Take, Murder is May 8, but most bookstores already have their copies in stock. But before you visit, call and ask if they have their copies of Make, Take, Murder. Also...whenever possible, please put your money where your house is and buy locally.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Kiki in the News

It's been a thoroughly Kiki type of month.

A couple of weeks ago while I was out shelling with my pal Nancy, I dropped my phone into the briney brink. Bad news. That meant I not only lost my photos, I also lost my ability to read email from the BlackBerry.

Then I had my skin broken by a neighbor's dog, except I didn't know the dog belonged to a neighbor and the health department suggested I get rabies shots.

But while I was having my share of "issues," Kiki was in the news.

First, let me share some great photos taken by Anne Smith at the Boynton Beach City Library event.

Here I am with Connie...

And here's the coveted armadillo vase.

In the hands of its new owner, Lane C.

And finally, the author (moi) with her book. (Since I've moved to Florida, I'm into much brighter colors. Hope you approve!)

I'm excited about appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book, in Charlottesville, VA, on March 19 at the Omni Hotel. Our upcoming panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book is being billed as one of the 17 hot events that caught the eye of one of the writers at “The Hook” -- along with Kathryn Stockett, Kathy Reichs, Jim Lehrer, Alan Cheuse and top acts. Wow.

Here’s the link:

I am giving away a Kindle and other cool stuff to celebrate Barbara Vey's Beyond Her Book blog's 4th Anniversary. Go to

And Kiki is up against Jack Reacher in Jen Forbus's World's Favorite Amateur Sleuth Tournament. You can vote here:

Please do vote! I want to prove that nice girls do finish first!

Meanwhile, Make, Take, Murder is in production. Be sure to pre-order your copy from any fine bookseller today. The official release date is May 1, 2011.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dead Armadillo Vase Brings $120 at Auction

Yep. Read it and weep. Today I auctioned off my precious armadillo, which I turned into this gorgeous (cough, cough) vase, for $120 to benefit the Boynton Beach City Library. Needless to say, the grand unveiling (in which I pulled off blue masking tape and a green garbage bag) brought a tremor of oooohs and aaahs from a stunned crowd of Friends of the Library. Never had they seen such splendid artistry!

The winner asked me to autograph the base, and I happily did.

My sister didn't believe I would ever part with this priceless momento, but knowing that my dead armadillo, the corpse I rescued from the side of the road and a flock of turkey buzzards, was going to a good home made it soooo much easier.

My friend Nancy took this stunning photo. I threw in the silk flowers as a small gesture of graciousness. Nancy said that each time she looked at the 'dillo, it reminded her how important it is to eat FIBER.

After the auction, another woman approached me. "If you make another vase, I'll give $200 to the library. I would have bid on your vase today but I left my checkbook in the car."

Anyone know where I can find another dead armadillo?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Me and My Armadillo--When the Creative Urge Turns to Roadkill

About a month ago, I noticed a dead armadillo by the side of the road. He was a big guy, flat on his back, his legs punctuating the sky.

I wanted that armadillo. I'd seen a stuffed armadillo holding a beer bottle on display in a local shop, but it wasn't for sale. I can't explain it, but that silly piece of taxidermy caught my imagination. I thought it was "way cool."

Each time I drove past that dead armadillo on the road, I thought, "Gee, what a waste." Finally, about four days after I first spotted the roadkill, I called a local taxidermist.
"How dead is dead?" I asked.

He explained that four hours dead is about the limit for his work purposes.

"Okay, this armadillo is way past that. But his shell would still be good, wouldn't it? What could I do with the shell?"

The guy realized I wasn't shining him on. I was serious.

"Hmmm. You could tear off the flesh and get some 20 Mule Team Borax and soak the shell in it. That would kill the smell. After that, get some epoxy. Use it to glue the shell together or into any position you want," he said. "And good luck." With a chuckle, he hung up.

Okay, but first I had to "rescue" the armadillo. I drove to the site, pulled on latex gloves, and shooed away the turkey buzzards. They were reluctant to leave. I picked up the 'dillo by the tail. He was a heavy dude, about fifteen pounds. I stuffed him into a black garbage bag. The cars driving by slowed to watch. I waved.

With my raw material in the trunk, I stopped at the local ACE Hardware store. I bought an alumninum turkey basting pan and the 20 Mule Team Borax. At home, I used an old pair of kitchen shears to cut off the rascal's head (did you know armadilloes have whiskers under their chins and ears like pigs'?), legs and tail. I scrapped all the flesh from his shell that I could, using an oyster shell as my tool. I sprinkled the Borax over the shell. And I waited.

A week ago, I judged my experiment "done." Only one problem: I have no idea what to do with my dead 'dillo. I wrapped him around a big empty bottle of wine. Now I can't get the empty bottle out. I think I'll have to soak him again. And then what?

Any ideas?
By the way, I have NO idea why Blogger insists on making this photo vertical. Sigh. And his shell looks white because there's this sort of scale-like covering on an armadillo's body. It comes off when it's soaked in water. I think I'll have to paint the shell to get it brown again.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Murder in the Magic City

Can Murder Make Us Laugh? was the name of our panel, the last panel of the day in Birmingham, Alabama, where Margaret Fenton and her friends made all of us authors feel real Southern hospitality.

The verdict? Well, you bet it can! Sue Ann Jaffarian was our moderator. I appeared with Rosemary Harris and Chris Grabenstein.

Ask me about my dead armadillo. Go ahead. Ask me...

I guess I was making a point.

From left to right, starting in the front: Mary Anna Evans, Sara Rosett, Vicki Doudera, Jeri Westerson, and CJ West. Second row: Chris Grabenstein, Vicki Delaney, Sue Ann Jaffarian, me, and Rosemary Harris. Third row: Vicki Lane, Nancy Means Wright, and James Macomber.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Humans Are More Alike Than Different: An Interview With Michael Dymmoch

Michael Allen Dymmoch will be the Local Guest of Honor for Love Is Murder 2011, held in Chicago, on Feb. 4-6. For more information, go to Love Is Murder.

1. I know that Michael Allen isn’t your given name. Tell us about why you decided to create your own identity and how that influences you as a writer who creates identities on paper.

I prefer not to answer questions about my name beyond saying that your real name is the one you make for yourself.

2. In your Jack Caleb and John Thinnes Mystery series, Jack is a fascinating character who is unusually candid about being a gay man. He even wishes at one point that he felt lust for a woman. You also explore his concerns about dating. How do you keep that candor? What skill do you call upon as a writer to find that ringing honesty?

Write what you know is a cliché because it's true. I would amend it to add or what you can learn. We're all able enjoy stories about people of different genders, times, and orientations precisely because humans are more alike than different in our fears, longings and aspirations--we all want love and work. Bringing Caleb to life was simply a matter of research applied to my own experiences. I know what it's like to be in love, to miss someone so much it hurts, to obsessively desire a man, to dread dating. Therefore, so does Caleb. Caleb is a good shrink because he knows himself. He's open about his sexual identity because he understands openness to be a position of power, and he knows that remaining in the closet invites misunderstanding and blackmail.

3. In the same series, moving in concert with the plot, the characters have these scenes that are mini-short stories, complete with other characters, conflict and resolution. For example, John breaks into his in-laws’ car in such a way that it’s a rebuke to their classism. How do you construct these interludes?

I try to tell the character's story in a way that integrates it into the larger narrative. Some readers (and reviewers) don't get that life is a collections of short stories connected by the memory of the person whose experiences they are. Sometimes the memories are retrieved intentionally and in chronological order, sometimes evoked at random by external stimuli.

How do they come to you? How do you position them so they don’t slow the action down?

Again, writers use their own experiences. I've encountered people like Thinnes' in-laws and his supervisor, Rossi. One of the best things about being a writer is that you can kill people who piss you off without ending up in prison. Or you can put them into situations that show just how badly they behave without getting yourself fired. Also writers steal stories and transform them into tales of their own, which--as Stan Brakhage pointed out--is not unlike taking someone's car, slapping on a new coat of paint and different license plates, and having it for yourself. I love stories. I squeeze small stories into larger ones for the fun of it and because vignettes illustrate character in a way that just saying "Thinnes is a good guy and a cynic" can't.

As for not slowing the action, the story is the thing. As long as they don't derail the story, short stories within the main are like scenic detours in the general direction of your destination.

4. “Jack” is a nickname for “John.” Clearly, names are very important to you. Was there some reason you gave these two very different men the same name? Do they represent different sides of masculinity—the more traditional expectations and the less accepted ones?

Actually, I didn't think all that carefully about those characters' names. Caleb's nickname is Jack because his initials are JAC- Jack is simply the popular spelling of the phonetic pronunciation. The Man Who Understood Cats was originally written as a screenplay which I novelized when I couldn't interest anyone in the script. It was intended to be a cop/buddy film, so the cop was a given--straight, middle class, modestly educated. Caleb became rich, well educated, a shrink, and gay because that combination of characteristics seemed most likely to create conflict--the essence of story. Also I was well educated in the sciences and could research rich and gay. If I'd envisioned a series, I probably wouldn't have been so ambitious.

5.You write with such a sure sense of being a Chicago insider. I’m thinking about the mallard that the police protected and how the building codes invite graft. Tell us about your love of the Windy City and how you collect such anecdotes/information. (I know you’ve been through a citizen’s academy, so maybe tell us about that?)

Stephen King taught me the trick of adding just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest. Living in Chicago helps, but newspaper and TV coverage of the city (especially by Chicago Tonight and other great WTTW programs), are a godsend. (A duck actually did hatch her eggs at Western & Belmont, protected by cops and crime-scene tape, and covered by several local TV stations.) I also get material from walking and driving around the city and riding the CTA--stuff you can't make up (like the time a motorman stopped his Brown line train to jump out and extinguish a fire on the tracks. I've got pictures!) Police Departments have also been marvelously helpful. Once they're sure you're on the level, not crazy or a crook, and you'll keep it off the record when requested, they're usually happy to share their tales. And cops are great story-tellers. Most departments also have a public relations office or officer. Northbrook's Michael Green spent an hour telling me how his Department worked, And Pat Camden of Chicago PD's News Affairs spent two hours talking to me, then hooked me up with an arson investigator who answered questions I never thought to ask. I've also attended autopsies; and seminars on gunshot and stab wounds, toxicology and forensic science--all of them given by people with great stores to steal --er, tell.

6. “Writers say that what sets them apart from nonwriters is a sense of isolation, and a feeling of being different from others, of always standing apart, observing.” Talk about that. Explain how you stand apart and whether you’ve cultivated that sense of distance.

Another cliché firmly grounded in fact. I always felt isolated and different as a kid--an ugly duckling. When I discovered the writing community, it was obvious to me that I'd been flying with the wrong flock.

7. MIA, your most recent book, is entirely different in tone from Death in West Wheeling and the Caleb/Thinnes series. It’s a combination coming of age novel and a love story. You clearly don’t worry about genre-hopping. What inspired you to write MIA?

I saw an M.I.A. bumper sticker on an old rusty car driven by a man too young to be a Vietnam vet or the son of one. I wondered about the sticker--Did it come with the car? Was a relative M.I.A.? Was the young driver a history buff? Since I couldn't catch up to him to ask, I made up my own story.

An earlier novel was also inspired by a motorist. Driving to work one morning--late as usual, I nearly collided with a car backing out of a driveway hell bent for election. Being a mystery writer, I immediately decided the driver must have committed a murder to be in such a hurry so early in the day. That--considerably embroidered--became the opening sequence of The Fall.

Also, you have nearly the same line in MIA as you have in The Death of Blue Mountain Cat. “The way humans is made, you can’t take care of somethin’ without comin’ to love it or hate it.” (MIA) “Humans can’t remain neutral about anything they give their time or labor to. Whatever we take care of, we either come to love or hate.” (The Death of Blue Mountain Cat) Tell us about why this idea resonates with you.

I guess I just find it to be one of those endearing (or maddening) facts about human beings that fit into both novels (as well as one I'm working on now).

How does a writer use this idea to develop character?

As you illustrated in the above quotes (by telling) or by showing how caring for something brings the character to love it.

8. You reference Groundhog Day in Death in West Wheeling, and Terminator and Starman to name just a few in The Death of Blue Mountain Cat. Are you a big movie fan? How have they shaped your work as an author?

Big fan of Shakespeare's tragedies and many dramatic movies and police series. Screenplays are like short stories and they can be very good outlines for novels if you understand the difference between showing and telling. Screenplays also have a structure that helps keep the story from meandering off point.


Michael Dymmoch was born in Illinois and grew up in a suburb northwest of Kentucky. As a child she kept a large number of small vertebrates for pets and aspired to become a snake charmer, Indian chief or veterinarian. She was precluded from realizing the former ambitions by a lack of charm and Indian ancestry and from the achieving the latter profession by poor grades in calculus and physics. This made her angry enough to kill. Fortunately, before committing mayhem, she stumbled across a book titled Maybe You Should Write a Book and was persuaded to sublimate her felonious fantasies. Moving to Chicago gave Michael additional incentives to harm individuals who piss her off. On paper of course. Author of nine novels, Michael Dymmoch has served as president and secretary of the Midwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and newsletter editor for the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime. Michael is a Chicago resident and charter member of the Chicago Mystery blog, The Outfit Collective

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Directions for Making a Shell Mirror

Start with a mirror, of course, but don’t do as I did. I bought a mirror in a frame with a beveled edge. That meant an uneven surface for gluing shells. Buy a flat frame. Glue on the shells. Yes, it’s that easy. Here are a few tips. (Learn from my mistakes!)

1. Sort your shells in advance. I rinse mine with tap water and set them on paper towels to dry. Then I sort them into plastic baggies with ziplock tops. Having them sorted makes it much easier to find what you need. Sort by size, type and color if possible. Sorting by size is particularly helpful!

2. Boil any coiled shells, especially whelks and spirals that might have small critters in them. I try never to take a shell with an occupant, but it can happen. If you don’t boil these ASAP, you will have a huge stinky mess. Trust me on this! You can pick out flesh with tweezers or a straight pin.

3. Include broken shells, large and small shells. Oddly enough, broken shells work very well because you can cover up the missing area, and their unusual shape makes them perfect for nestling against your big shells. Small shells are particularly desirable for snuggling into empty spots.

4. Play with location, putting down your large or most spectacular shells first BEFORE you start gluing things down. I set down an initial layer of shells and built on it.

5. Ventilate your work area. After I finished, I had a colossal headache. I didn’t realize how the fumes were building up.

6. Ignore the “Oh, crud” moment that occurs when you think, “This isn’t going to look right.” It will. I had that moment, but I kept working, even slipping bits of shells under the larger pieces.

7. Let your work dry thoroughly. Otherwise, the pieces can slide.

The glue I used was Quick Grip. I bought two tubes at Ace Hardware and used both tubes. It cleans up with acetone (nail polish remover). It dries clear. It was good and bad. Because it doesn’t completely “set” for 24 hours, I could move things around. It did get stringy, which was bad. I definitely used too much, but I decided to paint my shells with clear nail polish so the extra glue was less noticeable.

Cost: The mirror cost $10 at Walmart, the two tubes of glue came to $8, and the nail polish was about $5. So the total cost of the shell mirror was $23. Pretty nifty when you consider you can’t touch a smaller sized, similar mirror for less than $60.

Here's another photo. This one is before I cleaned off the excess glue, but it gives you a better look at the shells.