Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Carol Balawyder - Guest Author

I have to say that as I read Carol's five word answers, I was sympathetic. She describes herself as introverted, optimistic, procrastinator, patient, and insecure. She cheated on the five words to describe her writing by including seven words. Since I am flexible, I added hyphens and brought her back to five words: contemporary,  psychological-crime, women’s fiction, character-driven. So shoot me.
Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

At my desk, looking out unto my back yard. Everything is handy and it’s quiet. For more on my writing venue have a look at my writers’ desks series.


What makes a great short story?

That it’s poignant and compelling. I get into it from the opening sentence and keep reading until the last sentence. Actually, that could be said of any genre of writing.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

Mornings for sure. I drink two cups of vanilla roasted cappuccino decaf. That signals my work day has begun.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I read about four or five that I actually finish. I’m glad you put great in parenthesis. There’s genre great and then literary great. For me, a great book moves and elevates me. It’s more than just entertainment, although I do like to be entertained. Literary great is a notch above the pure entertainment books. It has substance. I would call Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and A.D. Miller’s Snow Drops literary great while Wendy James’ The Lost Girls crime genre great.

I do tend to read in my genre while I’m writing. It gets me in the mood. Depending on what I’m working on I’ll read crime or women’s fiction. My blogging community also provides me with inspiring creative input.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

My women’s fiction novel Getting to Mr. Right explores the absent father’s effect on a daughter’s adult relationships with men. My crime fiction is a lot about the “why” of criminal behavior. Though there is always a murder, I also examine other crimes, such as child abuse and negligence.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

To keep believing in myself. Right now I have a lot on my plate: my blog, editing two crime novels, marketing the novels I’ve already published and working on new ideas. Also, I wonder if I’m wasting my time. I have to keep pushing that question out of my mind and believe more in the process. What else would I be doing? Lying on a beach and reading a novel wishing I’d have written it or, if I don’t like it, saying I could do better than that.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I used to teach criminology and so the idea of setting my novel in a college campus felt comfortable.

Unlike my first crime novel, which is more of the whydunit, this one leans on the whodunit genre, simply for the challenge.

Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.

Women writers of noir fiction. I have a series on the femme fatal on my blog written by these amazing writers. All of these authors inspired me.

I am also inspired by reading plays. What comes to mind is Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I like to study the dialogue and the characters in them.
Getting to Mr. Right: Campbell’s research into the father/daughter dynamic and how it affects a woman’s personal choices proves that Prince Charming is nothing but a myth. In a few months, she will receive international recognition for her work.

As part of her study, Campbell gives workshops to help women still seeking Mr. Right. Her latest group is made up of three women: Missi Morgan, who can’t seem to let go of a philandering spouse; Suzy Paradise, a self-proclaimed queen of online dating; and Felicity Starr, whose life and career are dictated by a controlling father.

In the midst of her study, a charming and personable man enters Campbell’s life, putting her theories in shambles. Not only does she now question the validity of her research, but she must choose between her career and having her own Prince Charming. This personal dilemma makes it difficult for Campbell to give these women advice, as she encourages them to find their own paths to happiness and helps them set themselves free.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Author Guest Post - Donald Levin

Donald Levin describes himself as smart, ironic, perceptive, stubborn, and skeptical. His writing is realistic, engaging, moving, complex, and fast-paced. Here’s how he answered his questions:

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Over two decades as a professional writer, I’ve written in almost every circumstance you can imagine . . . in cubicles in large writers’ bullpens, in private offices, in hotel rooms, in bookstore cafes, in coffee shops, in libraries, in my car, on my front porch, in client offices that were so dismal they made me happy I could get up and leave but sorry for the people who had to stay there . . . What makes a venue productive depends on what I’m trying to do. When I’m rewriting or editing, I can pretty much work anywhere, any time.

But when I’m composing something new, the game changes. I need two things: somewhere that allows for the quietude of mind necessary for me to do creative work, and someplace where I can get into a routine of settling in to write for hours. When I began drafting my latest novel, I couldn’t write in my usual home office in the basement because a flood had made it uninhabitable. I was on sabbatical from my teaching job so didn’t want to go into school, where I knew I’d be interrupted constantly. I couldn’t afford a short-term lease on an office so I tried out several of the libraries around where I live, and settled on one in particular where I felt most comfortable. It was a large, quiet, clean well-lighted place with an alcove that perfectly suited me. I went there every day at opening time and worked all day, and in four months finished the draft of 120,000 words. The place was perfect . . . it was in the middle of a small downtown so I could take lunch breaks nearby and stroll around for an hour, it was not so loud and busy that I couldn’t focus, nobody knew me, and I could settle in for hours every day. I was able to get into the habit of producing writing, and it was lovely.

I know lots of people don’t have the luxury I had, but it was perfect for me.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

When I was younger my most productive writing time was at night . . . after my day job was finished I could concentrate on writing into the night and still get up to work the next day. Ah, youth! Now that I’m, um, not so young, I find my focus is better if I start work in the morning. That doesn’t mean I always start writing right away, but I need to be sitting at my desk at the same time every day and be able to devote a substantial chunk of time to it. Flannery O’Connor used to say it was important for her to be sitting at her desk in case any ideas came so she’d be there to catch them and that’s how I feel too.

My second most productive time of the day is around 3 p.m. For some reason, after the activity of the morning and the interlude of lunch, I seem to kick into high gear again around three. It’s a mystery.

Caffeine is a must in the morning, as a stimulant and as part of the writing ritual. Park the car, grab a cuppa coffee from the local barista, spread out on a library table, and settle in to work. Nothing better! Some people I know use alcohol or marijuana to grease the wheels or focus the mind but neither of those work for me. Just like finding the best venue, the secret is to find what works for you and then go with it.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life but in all that time I’ve never actually counted the number of books I read. Some people keep a reading journal, which I approve of but don’t seem to have the desire to do. But I’m reading constantly (usually one book at a time), and when I finish a book I feel out of sorts until I start a new one. How many I read depends on how much time I have available. Recently I had back surgery and with a lot of time on my hands I went through about a dozen hefty books in a month. I read both in and out of my genre though I’m getting pickier about books than I used to be. Once I could find something to value in even the worst book and would stick with it to the end . . . knowing how hard it is to write a book I would feel I owed it to the author to finish. As I get older I’m finding myself bailing out of more books. There seems to be a tendency to publish more massive door-stoppers than ever before, and unless it’s to my taste I find myself losing interest before the end. I love Pynchon and tried to read Bleeding Edge (which I was looking forward to because I liked Inherent Vice (not, repeat, not the movie), but around page 300 I gave up because it wasn’t working for me. I don’t feel so bad about doing that anymore . . . maybe because time is getting more precious to me.

For the past few years I’ve been reading more non-American novels, particularly mysteries, which are what I write. American mysteries IMHO are laboring in the shadow of the hard-boiled, wall-to-wall violence of an earlier time, and not only don’t I find them compelling but I feel they’re dangerous in their cavalier approach to violence and sensation with little else to recommend them.

My most recent great book is a tie between Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Neither of these are genre novels, though they are both energized by terrific plots and don’t have the glacial movement of the typical literary novel. It’s hard to write a great mystery, I think . . . it’s harder to break new ground when you have to honor (or upset) well-established conventions of the genre. But if you think differently about what a “great book” means and consider mystery series as one long continuous novel, then it’s possible to approach greatness in the totality of a series . . . my best candidates would be what the Swedish couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo did with their Martin Beck series, what Henning Mankell does with his Wallander books, and what Ian Rankin does with Rebus.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

It’s hard to narrow it down to three but here goes . . . All of the three authors I’m going to mention have the same joys: wonderful characters who come alive between the pages of the books, stories that capture you quickly and draw you through the entire novel, books with a crucial connection between character and plot and setting, and books that engage and enlarge our sympathies in some important way. These are, not coincidentally, exactly the characteristics I strive for in my books.

Giles Blunt is a contemporary Canadian mystery writer who has the John Cardinal series set in northern Ontario. His work is richly textured with a constant interplay between character, story, and location . . . the books couldn’t take place anywhere else than northern Ontario. Compelling stories and believable characters keep you reading.

The Dutch writer Janwillem van de Vetering published a series of Amsterdam detective stories from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Having spent time in a Zen monastery (and written about it in a couple of memoirs), he wrote novels that were inflected with a wonderfully droll sense of Buddhism. Again, he features great characters and compelling mysteries. Though in his later works he moved his trio of detectives from their native Dutch soil to the States, and in those books they lose touch with the settings that energized the books, he’s still worth reading and enjoying.

He’s not well-known today and it’s hard to find his books anymore but in his day Ross McDonald was among the top writers working in the detective genre. He opened the American hard-boiled detective novel out to encompass social critique, and in his later books began to probe the psychoanalytic underpinnings of his mysteries. I inhaled his books, sometimes two a day. For anybody who hasn’t read him, he’s indispensable in learning how to move a story along.

There are so many others . . . the Scottish novelist William McIlvaney, the Swedish authors Hakan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson, the Norwegian Karin Fossum, the Irish writer Adian McKinty . . . email me if anybody wants to know more.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Both of my Martin Preuss novels (and the ones that will follow, including the third book that I’m writing now) are about the failure of love, the cascading consequences of greed and violence, and the cruelty and brutality we inflict on others consciously or unconsciously.

What motivates you to write?

First, I love to do it. Honestly, everything about writing is a total pleasure for me. I love to spin out a fictional world that invites readers in for an experience that engages them and leaves them changed and moved by the end of the book. I love building houses in what Fay Weldon calls “the City of Invention.” I love using language. I love the psychomotor activity of putting words on a page, either scrawled along laboriously with a pen or sped along on a keyboard. (I’m not wild about rejection, but that comes with the territory; you have to focus on the joys and not the agonies.)

Second, in a larger sense, all art for me is a way to celebrate the world. The visual arts are a way to celebrate the visual world, and music a way to celebrate the aural world. Writing is a way to celebrate the human world . . .  to touch people’s minds and hearts, and enlarge our sympathies about the joys, sorrows, and possibilities of being human.

And finally, Virginia Woolf said the artist doesn’t create, she “makes visible.” There are aspects of this world of ours that I would like to make visible, and crafting stories is my way to do that.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

Like much of my writing, The Baker’s Men—the second Martin Preuss mystery—had its genesis in a single moment, kind of like an inspirational Big Bang. One afternoon several years ago I was driving down the street in Ferndale, Michigan, the city where I live just outside Detroit, which is also the setting of my mysteries. I saw a man half-walking, half-stumbling down the sidewalk with his hands on top of his head. He didn’t seem to be in distress, just sort of dazed. And I remember thinking to myself, “Now THAT’S the beginning of a novel.”

It was ripe with the kinds of questions we want our readers to ask: Who was he? What had happened to him? Where was he going? I kept that image in my mind until I had the time and space to be able to sit down and actually start the book. I knew I had to take the story someplace from there pretty quickly, so I went to my trusty folder of story ideas and interesting articles that I save (I’m always on the lookout for ideas for my books and poems). There I found the perfect way to continue.

I found an older article I had cut out from one of the local alternative newspapers several years before. The article described a crime that took place at a small family-owned bakery in Detroit. Two men were shot (one was killed) and a third man escaped. The murder was never solved. The article was actually about the devastation the bakery owners suffered in the aftermath of the crime, but the overall situation caught my imagination when I first came across it.

That situation became the inciting incident for the book that turned into The Baker’s Men. The man I had seen walking down the sidewalk morphed into the third man who escaped from the shooting at the bakery, which I now located in Ferndale. I changed most of the details about the crime (its location, the owners and their situation, the motive, and the victims) and repopulated it to suit my purposes. Then finally put my Detective Preuss on the case and it became his book.

But that’s not the only source for this novel. The other source was a tale my parents told me years ago something that happened to one of their friends. I can't say much more about it because I'll give away too much of the mystery that’s at the heart of the book . . . but like the article in the newspaper, I carried this story in my head for a long time (in this case more than twenty years) because I knew it would wind up in a novel someday. And it finally did, in The Baker’s Men.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

The best piece of advice on writing I ever read was from novelist John Gardner, who wrote this in On Becoming a Novelist:

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

That sentiment has seen me through some very difficult times in my writing life, including a period of almost ten years when, despairing of finding anything close to success as a novelist, I stopped writing fiction entirely. I was having no success in placing anything, and just got too discouraged to continue. I’m not sure it was writer’s block (which suggests you want to write but can’t) as much as having lost the little holy flame that keeps us going.

Finally I came to terms with what “success” means . . . it’s not fame and riches but knowing that you are doing the best, most honest work you can. It was only when I realized the thunderous truth of what Gardner was saying that I was able to understand that I needed to write, regardless of what happened to my work. Once I realized that, it freed me up and I was able once again to let my creative drive find an outlet in writing fiction.

What Gardner says is what artists in every field discover for themselves: the satisfactions are all in the work.

Here's a quick blurb for The Baker's Men:

Easter, 2009. The nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. Ferndale Police detective Martin Preuss is spending a quiet evening with his young son Toby when he’s called out to investigate a savage after-hours shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. Was it a random burglary gone bad? A cold-blooded execution linked to Detroit’s drug trade? Most frightening of all, is there a terrorist connection with the Iraqi War vets who work at the store? Struggling with these questions, frustrated by the dizzying uncertainties of the crime, and hindered by the treachery of his own colleagues who scheme against him, Preuss enters a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge that spans generations across metropolitan Detroit.

Reviewers have called this book “riveting” and “gripping,” with “the emotional unraveling of a complicated crime with well-developed characters and background drama.”

For more information about Don and his books check out his website https://donaldlevin.wordpress.com/

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sneaks and Subversives and Society Belles: An Interview with Karen Abbott

by Tina Whittle

Karen Abbott’s latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, weaves together the stories of four very different women—a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who became spies during the Civil War, two working as operatives for the Confederacy and two for the Union. A meticulous research, she is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for “Disunion,” the New York Times series about the Civil War.

She graciously agreed to share how she came to write what USA Today calls “sizzle history” and gives us a sneak preview of topics to come in her Savannah Book Festival presentation (Saturday, February 14th, at 2:50—3:50 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Telfair Square).

Tina Whittle: Your writings—including your latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy—focus on real women whose stories don’t show up in history texts. What drew you to their stories?

Karen Abbot: Obviously, history is mainly written about men, by men, and for men. And every time I’d read a historical account—of reform efforts, of the evolution of entertainment, of war, of anything—I’d immediately ask: what were the women doing? And not just any women—what were the “bad” women doing? The defiant, revolutionary women? In the case of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I wanted to find four women who lied, seduced, wheedled, plundered, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the American Civil War. Of course these women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no say in how the battles were waged, so I wanted to spotlight the ways they were able to change the course of the war—and, in the process, their own lives.

TW: And such fascinating lives they led! Two of them Union, two Confederate, all of them defying cultural expectations through their activities both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines. In a culture where the word “feminist” often provokes controversy, what can contemporary women learn from their nineteenth-century counterparts?

KA: I am loath to tell women—of any era—how they should be conducting themselves or how they should label themselves. But were it not for those incredibly brave and (for the time) radical 19th century feminists, women today would not have the luxury of debating the semantics of that word. One of my favorite anecdotes about Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew: every year, when she paid her property taxes, she included a note objecting to not having a vote. All four women in the book were well ahead of their time, in many respects.

TW: Yes, that was one of the first things that struck me as I read your book. Despite differences in the four women’s political beliefs and socioeconomic statuses, there was a skill each wielded as finely as any weapon—the ability to manipulate societal expectation.

KA: Absolutely! These women masterfully exploited society’s ideas and expectations of “womanhood.” War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself. But after Confederate operative Rose Greenhow was captured, there arose a question—one that would persist throughout the war—of what to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies.” Their gender provided them with both a psychological and physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.

TW: Your biography states that you are a native of Philadelphia who now lives in New York City. How did the Civil War South find its way onto your writerly radar?

KA: I spent six years in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the way the Civil War seeps into daily life and conversation down there in a way it never does up North. It was quite a culture shock to see the occasional Confederate flag on a lawn, and to hear the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” The point was really driven home one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400. For two hours I idled behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON’T BLAME ME: I VOTED FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS. As soon as I got home, I began looking for Civil War heroines.

TW: It’s obvious to any reader that you do a lot of research—the endnotes to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are a novella-length work all their own (approximately sixty pages). How do you manage to find—and keep—the storyline amidst so many facts and statistics and competing narratives?

KA: My goal was to tell the story of the Civil War through the perspectives of these four women, and to tell it in a way it hadn’t been told before. It was important to me that the women’s stories all connect in some way, that there was a cause and effect, that one woman’s actions influenced another’s circumstances. So it was a challenge to map out all of these connections, especially since I’m sort of a technological Luddite; I’m sure there are programs to help writers keep track of such things, but I don’t own or operate any of them. Plus, I’m very tactile; I like to physically move the puzzle pieces around and see where they might fit. At one point, I printed out the entire book and spread it all over my apartment floor—a bit difficult when your apartment is only 600 square feet. I also am addicted to post-it notes and outlines; by the time my research is finished, I’ll have a 100-page outline of the book’s major events and the sources I’ll need to write them.

TW: Are you planning on doing research while you’re in Savannah, famously gifted to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present from General Sherman?

KA: I love Savannah—I used to visit fairly often when I lived in Atlanta—and I’m excited to get back there. I think I’ll have to do the “March to the Sea” walking tour. And also eat as much shrimp and grits as possible.

TW: Savannah is a great place for both eating and exploring the dark corners of history. The attraction of shrimp and grits needs no explanation. What is it about the notorious and nefarious that catches your scholarly interest?

KA: I’ve always been interested in “dark” subjects, all things hidden and mysterious. When I was a kid, maybe 13 or 14, I used to write stories about murderous, cross-dressing matrons and submit them (fruitlessly, of course) to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. I’d blame at least part of this interest on my Catholic school education, which—at least in my experience—elevated subversive and taboo topics by refusing to discuss them. Of course I wanted to prod and poke and examine the things that were kept just out of reach.

TW: So now that you have three best-selling books on the historical nonfiction shelves, what’s next?

KA: My next project is a novel, based on a real-life Gilded Age con artist. The historical record is too insufficient for a work of nonfiction, so I’m trying my hand at fiction. It’s challenging me in different ways; now I actually have to call upon my imagination to invent, to put flesh on the historical bones. The one frustration about history is that dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to, and I’m looking forward to having more control over that.

TA: And we’re looking forward to that next book!

*          *          *
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and optioned by Sony for a miniseries. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press. You can read more about her and her work at www.tinawhittle.com.

[ This interview was originally published on the Savannah Book Festival Blog and the Low Country Sisters in Crime blog on 2/5/15. ]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lois Winston - Guest Author

We had scheduled this post for yesterday -- except Lois's internet was toast. So being flexible, we postponed until today. ~ Jim

Lois Winston describes herself as a vertically challenged, right-brained coffee addict. Despite that she writes humorous mysteries and romances that are award-winning bestsellers. Without further ado, here's.......Lois.

You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

It’s not my favorite restaurant because I’ve never eaten there, but I always wanted to dine at The Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. I could have. My husband surprised me with dinner reservations when I turned {{{cough-cough}}} (You didn’t really think I’d tell you which birthday, do you?) However, when I realized how much the prix-fixe dinner (the only type offered) would cost, I made him cancel the reservation. Yes, I’m too damned practical for my own good.

But since cost isn’t a factor in this instance, my guests and I are dining at The Rainbow Room. The three people I’d invite are Andrea Bocelli, Alan Alda, and Superman. I’m inviting Andrea because I love his voice. He’d have to sing for his supper, though. Alan is invited to provide conversation that is both entertaining and stimulating. I love both his sense of humor and his intelligence. And Superman? He’s going to provide the after-dinner entertainment by taking my on a flight over Manhattan and beyond. Ever since I was a little kid and first saw Peter Pan, I’ve always wanted to be able to fly.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

I need silence to write. I never write on the weekends because just knowing my husband is somewhere in the house keeps me from getting into my writing zone. I don’t know how people who write in coffee shops do it. All that chatter going on around me would drive me crazy. As long as I’m in a place free of distractions and noise, I can write. Usually that’s my office, but it doesn’t have to be. Any totally silent place will do. Have laptop, will travel!

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

Oh boy do I need caffeine! As a matter of fact, hold that thought a moment. I’ll be right back. Just typing this has made me crave a cup. Ever see those beer can hats with the straws? I need one of those filled with a constant supply of hot java!

I don’t know that I have a most productive time of day. I usually spend my mornings running errands and begin writing after lunch, but that’s only because the supermarket is less crowded first thing in the morning, and it’s easier to get a parking space downtown when I need to go to the bank, post office, cleaners, etc.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

A few years ago I fell in love with Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death mystery series. The four books take place in the time of Henry II. Adelia, the protagonist, is a medieval Temperance Brennan, not as far-fetched as it sounds, given that she grew up in Salerno during the short period of time when that city was a progressive beacon of light in a Dark Ages world. The author also wrote City of Shadows, which takes place in Berlin between the wars and is a fictional account of a woman who claimed to be the Russian princess Anastasia Romanov. I loved this book as well. The author had a way of both weaving a captivating story and making history come alive. I say “had” because she died a few years ago before finishing the fifth book in her mystery series. She also penned a series of three historical novels that take place during the American and French Revolutions under her real name, Diana Norman. 

Howard Odentz is a fairly new author who writes YA horror, not a genre I generally read, but the author has a fabulous sense of humor, and I love books that make me laugh. His humorous zombie apocalypse novel, Dead (a Lot), had me laughing out loud. 

Judith Viorst is an author of both children’s books and non-fiction. Her children’s books are brilliant. You may have heard of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day from the recent movie of the same name. Skip the movie (which looked positively dreadful in the previews and had nothing to do with the book other than the title.) Do read the book. Viorst has a way of capturing the trials and tribulations of childhood that are spot on. Her non-fiction books include a series of anthologies of essays, one for each decade of her adult life, beginning with When Did I Stop Being Twenty. Her latest is Unexpectedly Eighty. Every time I’ve entered a new decade of my life, one of the first things I do is buy the book that corresponds to that decade. I laugh so hard it almost makes me forget how old I’m getting.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Mostly humor, humor, and more humor. Plus, a scattering of dead bodies.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

My most recent mystery is Definitely Dead, the first book in my new Empty Nest Mystery series. I came up with the idea after reading a biography of George Burns. His wife, Gracie Allen, always played a very ditzy character who saw the world in quite a unique way. However, Gracie Allen in real life was brilliant and a very astute businesswoman. Around the same time I was watching a Thin Man movie marathon on AMC. I began to play around with the idea of combining the characters of Nick and Nora Charles with Gracie Allen. In my modern-day homage to the Thin Man series, the wife is the sleuth with a Gracie Allen sensibility, and her husband tags along to try to keep her out of trouble. He doesn’t always succeed.

What motivates your protagonist (if not a series, then use the protagonist of your most recent novel)? What influenced who they are today?

In my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries (currently four full-length novels and three novellas) the motivating factor is money. Anastasia was a typical middle-class, working mother of two teenagers when her husband dropped dead in Las Vegas. That’s when she learned of his secret gambling addiction and that he’s lost all their savings, leaving her with a mountain of debt and a loan shark breathing down her neck. In each book in the series Anastasia is looking for ways to whittle down that debt and keep her family from having to move from a 1950’s era rancher in the suburbs to a cardboard box on the street. Unfortunately, she keeps tripping over dead bodies, forcing her to become a reluctant amateur sleuth.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

Every scene needs to serve a purpose, and the only two purposes for a scene are to advance the plot or tell the reader something she needs to know about the point of view character AT THAT MOMENT. Anything else is filler and doesn’t belong in your book. This is the most valuable writing lesson I’ve ever learned because the biggest mistake most writers make when starting out is dumping all sorts of unnecessary back-story, description, chitchat dialogue, and other filler into their books. Knowing what not to write is often more important than knowing what to write.

Definitely Dead
Book One in the Empty Nest Mystery series

When her career is outsourced to Asia, fledgling romance author and empty-nester Gracie Elliott wants a job that will allow her time to write. So she opens Relatively Speaking, becoming a wing woman to the senior set. Since her clients need several hours each morning to find their teeth, lube their creaky joints, and deal with lower GI necessities, and they always turn in after the early bird specials, she has plenty of time to pen her future bestsellers. 

Gracie deliberately avoids mentioning her new business venture to husband Blake until after she signs her first client. Blake joins the company as a not-so-silent partner, tagging along to make sure Gracie doesn’t cause a septuagenarian uprising. When Client #13 is found murdered in the parking lot behind the Moose Lodge, Gracie knows, no matter how much Blake protests otherwise, she can’t wait around for the police to find the killer if she wants to save her livelihood.
For more information about Lois and her books visit her website at http://www.loiswinston.com and her Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog at http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. She can also be found on Tsu at http://www.tsu.co/loiswinston, on Pinterest at pinterest.com/Anasleuth/, and on Twitter @anasleuth. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kindle Scout and Me

Have you heard about the relatively new Kindle Scout program? If not, I’ll tell you about it in a minute. If so, I’ll tell you why I chose to try it.

But first, here’s how I came to my decision to try to qualify for this Amazon publishing venture and here is the link where you can nominate my book, Ant Farm.

The situation before Kindle Scout

The Seamus McCree series is published by Barking Rain Press (BRP), a small publisher. The books have generated positive reader reviews. The few professional reviews they have received have also been positive. But BRP does not have the resources for any kind of major publicity campaign. While I have done what I can to promote the books, one aspect I have not had any control over (nor would I in a traditional publishing contract) is the ability to aggressively price books to generate a larger reader base.

I have confidence that if I can get people to read a book in the series, they will want to read more about Seamus and friends and the scrapes they get into. If I were persistent and produced a book a year, by the time I had five or seven books in the series, I would have built a bigger following and the series might have traction. Was there a better way?

My electronic equivalent of the bottom drawer contained the first novel I wrote with Seamus McCree. I referred to it as my practice novel because, through its dozen drafts I learned how to write a mystery. It was good enough to garner an agent offer, but not strong enough to be published, and so six years ago, I put it aside. Last fall I reread it. Ant Farm had good bones, but needed major work to bring it up to my current standards. With effort, I could make it an excellent read.

If I self-published that reworked story, I could use it as a marketing device to help bring readers into the series. It could be a loss leader for the series. I could hook readers with Ant Farm and continue to provide good stories with Bad Policy, Cabin Fever, and Doubtful Relations (the manuscript I put aside to rework Ant Farm). Done correctly, I could build the Seamus McCree “franchise” more quickly.

After hemming and hawing at this change in plans from finishing Doubtful Relations first, I decided to tackle Ant Farm. I rewrote, re-edited, sent to beta readers, re-edited, proofread, and now it’s ready to go.

While I was revising, Amazon announced the Kindle Scout program. Briefly, it is a way for Amazon to get great content for their Kindle ebooks and Audible audio books based on reader nominations. An author submits a complete book in one of three genres, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance or Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Amazon staff reviews the submission, which includes a book cover, logline, blurb, author bio and some optional questions the author can answer. If they appear reasonable, within a couple of business days the book is listed and available for nomination. My direct link is https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3IATL9SA04ZS2

Disadvantages of Kindle Scout Program

Extra preparation

Submitting to the Kindle Scout program cost me no money and only a bit of time to jump through their hoops.

Unlike traditional publishing where the publisher produces the book cover, for Scout I had to submit one. Since I had planned to self-publish anyway, I already had a cover prepared. However, I had to develop a logline with a maximum of 45 characters, a short blurb (max 500 characters), cram my author bio into another 500-character limit, and choose three questions to answer, each in 300 characters.

I can use the logline for promotion, and the other stuff didn’t take too much time, and I had no extra cost, so the process was not much of a burden.

Loss of Pricing Control

Recall that one of my reasons for independently publishing Ant Farm was to maintain pricing control so I could generate free and reduced price opportunities to introduce people to the Seamus McCree series. Amazon, as the publisher, controls all pricing decisions. They will decide if the book is $2.99 or $5.99 or whatever. They’ll decide whether to provide free days.

Loss of Timing Control

If selected, Amazon determines when the ebook version of Ant Farm will be published. Had I not gone this route, I could have had the ebook available currently. That possibly cost a bit of revenue, but not much.

Kindle only

If accepted, my ebook will be available only in the Kindle format sold by Amazon or loaned through their Prime and Kindle Unlimited programs. No Barnes and Noble, no Kobo, no Scribd or Oyster. Amazon generates about 75% of my ebook sales. That means hooking my wagon to their horse gives up 25% of that potential revenue if all things are equal.

But will they be equal? I don’t think so, which brings us to the advantages as I see them.

Advantages of Kindle Scout Program


The primary reason I wanted to independently publish Ant Farm was to generate more readers for the Seamus McCree series. I believe (no facts on which to judge as the program is too new) that Amazon will want the early books to succeed. As of this writing, the Kindle Scout program has selected eight books in November, eight in December, and so far only one in January [update: three now selected].

If they choose my book, it will be one of the first published, and I believe they will make sure those books will do well. They will promote the heck out of them, and they can do that much better than I, because they have the platform for it.


The Kindle Scout program pays a $1,500 advance for books they publish. That advance would cover the editing and book cover costs I’ve incurred. Whatever royalties I earn would be profit.

Free Publicity

Participating in the Kindle Scout program provides 30 days of free publicity for Ant Farm and by extension the entire series. Even if not selected, at the end of the 30-day period those people who nominate the book receive an email from me thanking them for their interest and inviting them to keep in touch with an email address and link to my website.

Plus, during the nomination process I will use social media to generate interest in Ant Farm’s participation in the program. If others retweet and share Facebook posts, it provides additional content for new people to learn of the series.

As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” [Update: several people have told me they have purchased Bad Policy based on reading the selected chapters of Ant Farm.]

Exit Strategy

The initial contract with Kindle Scout is five years. However, if the ebook does not meet defined monetary goals, an author can cancel the contract in as few as two years. My contracts with Barking Rain Press have a three-year lock in. In reading Kindle Scout’s contract, it’s clear they intend the authors to be successful and if not, let them out of the program. So, if it is a bust, I can exit after two years, self-publish on all the platforms, and move on.

My conclusions

It comes down to giving up total control and ebook retailers to gain Amazon’s marketing power. Given my current level of sales, I think it provides a good risk/return tradeoff. Others may be in different places in their writing careers and could come to a different conclusion for them.
In case I haven’t been obvious. If you haven’t nominated Ant Farm yet, I hope you will. If you have, then thank you very much. I am offering extra praise for those who help publicize Ant Farm’s quest by letting others know.

It’s a good book, although I am a bit prejudiced.

~ Jim

[Update: This blog was originally published 2/1/15 on Writers Who Kill. As of this posting, Ant Farm has retained its "Hot" Label through the first seven days, thanks to all the people who have responded to my request to check the book out and nominate it if they like it. Thank you so much.]

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Author Guest Post - Lynn Chandler Willis

Lynn Chandler Willis describes herself as a simple country girl at heart. She says her writing is fast paced, quirky, character driven. Here's how she answered her questions:
You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

My guests would be Gypsy Moran, his sister Rhonda and their grandmother “Gram,” all characters in Wink of an Eye. There are some wonderful family dynamics going on with the Moran family. Their simplicity makes them incredibly complex. Where would we eat? A Tex-Mex restaurant on the moderately priced end of the spectrum. The Morans are blue-collar people you'd have a beer with.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Right now, I'd have to say I lean heavy on novel writing. Writing a novel is a serious time investment but it's paid off for me. I have two novels out and both are award winners. My novel, The Rising, won the 2013 Grace award for Excellence in Faith-based fiction, and Wink of an Eye won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best 1st PI novel competition.

What makes a great short story?

Well placed beats, or actions. Unlike a novel, with a short story you have limited words to get in an entire story. Every single word must move the story forward.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

Unfortunately, around 11:00 pm. I say that because I have to get up at six for the other job! For some reason, the muse starts poking me around that time. I think it may be psychological as I know I shouldn't be writing at that time when I have to get up so early so the rebel in me wants to win.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Everyone has flaws but people also have extraordinary strength in overcoming some of those flaws.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

Accepting that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect. I know writers who churn out 10,000 words a day while writing the first draft but may only keep 500 words of it in the final draft. I can't do that but I am upping my daily word count by just doing it. The words aren't as perfect as I want them to be but I have the foundation down on which to make them stronger.

What motivates you to write?

The characters pushing and shoving their way out of my head. They have stories to tell and I'm just the instrument they've chosen to use.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I had the character of Gypsy Moran in mind for several years. He wasn't always a private investigator but he was always in some type of investigative field. He was smart, sexy, cocky, a little bit of a jerk, and very flawed—but he was also vulnerable which made him endearing. I knew from the beginning I wanted the setting to be in the southwest but I wasn't sure exactly where until I saw the move “No Country for Old Men.” Seeing the vast openness of that area was like the proverbial ton of bricks. I knew without a doubt that was it. I started researching small towns in west Texas and when I found Wink, Texas, Gypsy found a home. I knew Wink of an Eye would be very character-driven so I wanted a setting that could hold its own as a secondary character and I found that in that tiny little town.
To learn more about Private Investigator Gypsy Moran and Wink of an Eye, or my other books, you can connect with me at:

Here's a quick little blurb for Wink of an Eye: Twelve-year old Tatum McCallen hires reluctant PI Gypsy Moran to prove his father didn't kill himself. Gypsy, on the run from his own set of problems, soon finds himself in the middle of a case involving eight missing girls, a cowardly sheriff, and undocumented workers. Aided by a sexy reporter, Gypsy begins unraveling secrets buried deep in his tiny hometown of Wink, Texas. Secrets so deep, exposing them threatens the only woman he's ever loved, and the very life of Tatum.