Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Sharp-tailed Grouse strutting for the ladies
Wanderlust is yin to my staying-at-home-hibernating’s yang. I am content to remain in one place until I am not, and then I hit the road, which is where I am now as I write this blog. This 47-day road trip will take us (my much better half, Jan Rubens, is with me) from our winter abode in Savannah, Georgia out to Hood River, Oregon, back east to Greece, New York and finally to our summer home in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula woods.

Air travel is my least favorite way to get from point A to spot B. I do love trains, but they run on rails and more or less on schedules; both inhibit our ability to get outside and enjoy seeing, hearing and touching ground. Walking would be great, but I don’t have sufficient time (or energy). That makes automobile travel the happy compromise.

We plan our day-to-day travel to include National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and Monuments and other outdoor attractions whenever possible. We’re not much for cities and museums. This trip we have added a different twist: every 50 miles as measured by the car’s odometer we stop and take a picture. This methodical approach does not capture the highlights of the trip, but it has captured the topography changes as we moved from east to west; from lush to dry to lush again; from low to high to low. (The album is on my personal Facebook page.)

Yellow-headed Blackbird
The saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” is not accurate for me. However, I do find that pictures stimulate my memory. Often when I see a photograph I have taken, I recall not only the specifics of that locale, but what led up to it and what happened afterwards. One added enjoyment of this trip has been to see how these more or less random pictures have triggered memories in folks who follow my Facebook posts.

We usually prefer taking backroads, which can make for more interesting pictures than those taken along interstates. On this trip, time constraints on when we could leave and when we had to be in Hood River made it necessary (well, at least very convenient) to do much of our early travel on interstates. Given that, these pictures provide a sense of the modern American society, rushing by the land at 75 miles an hour in our air-conditioned, nearly hermitically-sealed autos.

Northern Gannets billing
As much as these roadside pictures draw comments, the photographs I periodically take of the birds we see always bring responses. Some people have never seen the particular birds before and marvel at their colors or shape or antics. Others of my friends are avid birders and share their own experiences with the birds or the location.

This sharing, initially from me, but then back to me, provides a continued sense of community with my friends and acquaintances regardless of how physically far apart we are. Even those who do not comment on Facebook will, when I see them in person, often engage me in detailed conversations about a recent trip. Those conversations, which can occur months after the trip, allow me to relive my wanderings.

I’ve found writing mysteries has a similar communal affect. I write the mysteries and then some time (often a long time) later a reader will talk to me about the story, or the characters, or the setting, and I have the opportunity to relive the story, yet experience it through the filter of someone else’s eyes.

That is the essence of my wanderlust: to experience, to share, to re-experience and to learn.

~ Jim

Toward the infinite
Originally published on Writers Who Kill Blog 4/26/15

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Nancy Sweetland - Guest Author

Okay, so I'm on vacation. Nancy Sweetland sent me her material and then wrote back to say she had forgotten to send the answers to the questions--all in plenty of time. When I finally got around to posting the material, I realized she had skipped the "five word" questions about who she is and what her writing is, but she had included an interesting  blog on Writing Contests. Since the time was late, and that fault is mine, without further ado, I'm giving you both her answers and her thoughts on writing contests.

So readers, a bonus question for you: Do you, dear readers, agree, disagree or having something you would like to add?

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

I really need to be in my office at my computer. I've tried to handwrite in a coffee shop, or out at the beach but it doesn't work for me; too many distractions!

What makes a great short story?

People in trouble, whether mental or physical, working to solve their problem - but with a twist that leaves the reader thinking, 'Yeah, that could happen. That could work."

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?

At least eight books, maybe more, including the audio book I always have going in my car. Amazing how those fifteen minutes to the grocery store or a dental appointment can add up to hearing a whole novel.

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

The most challenging area for me is finding an idea I think important enough to develop into a story. Too often I'll discover (after 10,000 words) that it just wasn't strong enough to support going on.

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

My most recent work, The House on the Dunes grew from discovering how little I really knew about my mother's life. After her death there were so many questions I wished I had asked. This also answers the question about my protagonist's motivation - she is working through the secrets of her mother's life.

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

Ruth Rendell (her plots and characters are so challenging); Nora Roberts (she's so prolific and just so darn good) and Anne Rivers Siddons (her families are so intriguing, and so believable).

[And here is the bonus material -- which does indeed tell us something more about Nancy!]


Many writers have told me they don’t believe in participating in contests - that they feel it’s similar to buying a lottery ticket, that winning is simply a matter of luck, that it’s not a real assessment of their work’s value. And that (I hear this often) they think you shouldn’t have to spend money to be critiqued.

I don’t agree.

Not only because I’ve had some success in competitions (sure, that’s a feel-good event), but because the outcome is a way of putting my work out there to evaluate it against others’ in the same category. And, by and large, many of the stories/novel excerpts I’ve had the good fortune to place in competitions have gone on to be published.

I think of entering contests as an investment in my business. And writing is a business. (The fee is deductible, by they way.)

“But it costs money!” say the naysayers, especially those writers who are just getting their feet wet and whose efforts haven’t yet brought in a penny.

Yes, most contests do have entry fees and some are overpriced for the possible return. (I don’t enter those.) But there are some that are free to enter (and many are electronic so you don’t have to spend $$ on postage and paper) - so why not jump right in? I do believe that most contests are on the up and up, and the money you send to enter actually goes into the payout to the winners. The contest fee usually isn’t more than $15 - $25, the price of a lunch. Often it’s less.

It boils down to this: Do you believe in your work? Is it the best you can do? Wouldn’t you like to see how it stacks up against other manuscripts in the same category? You’ve written your heart out on that short story, or that novel. You know it’s good.  But how good is it?  Can it stand out above the crowd of other wannabes?

I don’t mean you should enter every contest that comes along; there are ‘way too many, and it takes time to enter even if electronically (while you really should be writing!). Pick and choose. Those that promise a critique for your entry can be helpful even if you don’t win a prize. Judges want to be supportive and they probably have a lot more experience than you do; if you get some advice, take it to heart - is it possible he/she’s right? That just maybe if you’d thought of the story in a different way you might have had a better entry? If so, think that advice over, and if you believe it’s valid, revise your work. And maybe, just maybe, next time around you’ll submit a story that an editor will want to publish.

For more information about Nancy and her writing, check out her website at:
Here's a quick blurb for The House on the Dunes:

Surprised by inheriting spectacular emeralds and a lavish home on Lake Michigan, Olivia is compelled to uncover the secrets of her mother’s past. Ignoring her controlling husband’s wishes, she moves into Dunes House to learn what has been concealed. But her efforts are complicated by dangerous incidents and withheld information. Is the old caretaker really blameless or the possessor of long-held secrets? Is her handsome neighbor romantically interested in her or only attempting to gain access to what has he sees as his rightful estate? Dunes House holds the answers…but will learning the truth bring to light an affair that could cost Olivia the only life she has ever known?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Marilyn Meredith - Guest Author

Marilyn Meredith describes herself as Busy, Persevering, Friendly, Caring, and Fun. Her writing is Mysterious, Absorbing, Suspenseful, Unusual, and Quick. Quick got me thinking: should I be jealous because she writes quickly while I am sometimes ponderous or is her writing a quick read? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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

My home office. Everything I need is close at hand from my computer to any research books.

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

Mornings, my mind works best then. And my choice of caffeine is Chai latte, always begin my day 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?

When I’m writing, three of four. Yes, I always read mysteries. My favorite recent “great” book was Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. I enjoy his other books too, but this one was indeed great.

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

M.M. Gornell who writes about the Mojave Desert and Route 66. She knows the area well and her mysteries show it.

Sue McGinty writes about one of my favorite places, the Central Coast of California. Her mysteries border on cozies but with more meat in them.

Gerrie Ferris Finger who you can always count on for an exciting tale with many twists and turns.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

To be honest, I don’t usually realize I’ve used a theme until I finish the book. What I do know is that I often address problems in my mysteries that people face in real life such as dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, or having a child with Down Syndrome.

What motivates you to write?

The need to find out what is happening with my characters keeps me writing. I write two different mystery series and when I’m through writing one, I’m anxious to see what’s going on with the other set of characters.

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

I read an article about someone who was missing with his car door left open and the engine running. That’s what got me started. The next step was who in my story would be missing and figuring out why.

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

The series began with a police officer named Doug Milligan whose partner was killed while his wife was on a ride-along. Through the series Milligan has become a detective and married a fellow officer. His most constant motivation, of course, is solving whatever crime(s) are facing him.

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

Robert B. Parker because he wrote short but compelling mysteries.

Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels, because of the interesting cast of characters including their private lives.

William Kent Krueger because of his ability to set the scene.

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

The same advice I give new writers today, “Never give up.” If you really want to be a writer, keep on writing. Don’t let rejections or anything else make you stop.

For more information about me and my books, check out my website at
Follow me on Facebook at
My latest Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery (written as F.M. Meredith), ViolentDepartures. 

Here's a short blurb for Violent Departures:

College student, Veronica Randall, disappears from her car in her own driveway, everyone in the Rocky Bluff P.D. is looking for her. Detective Milligan and family move into a house that may be haunted. Officer Butler is assigned to train a new hire and faces several major challenges

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gloria Alden - Guest Author

Gloria Alden describes herself as curious, optimistic and with a sense of humor. Her writing is small town cozy with interesting characters. I know Gloria and her stories and she’s telling the truth. Let's learn more about Gloria.


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)?

I would invite Abraham Lincoln, my son John and my father. I’d invite my son because he died of cancer when he was eighteen, and there are things I would like to tell him as well as ask him about. I would love to listen to Abraham Lincoln and the stories he has to tell, and I know my father and he would carry on the most interesting and funny conversations. My son would enjoy it, too.

We would eat at the Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn in Hanoverton, Ohio, a restaurant that also has rooms for overnight stays that dates back to the early 1800s, and a place where travelers stayed because the Sandy & Beaver Canal went through the area. Hanover was settled in 1813 by Quaker abolitionist James Craig, and the town was known as a safe-haven for runaway slaves. The historic inn was built in 1837. It has three floors, eleven rooms and twelve fireplaces. The ambiance is great with wood burning fireplaces in the winter, and a d├ęcor that fits in with its age. It also has delicious food. I’d like to think Abe Lincoln stayed there at one time although I doubt that he did.

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

I write best at the table in my library/dining room/office or at my computer in the same room surrounded by books and with a large front window with numerous plants, and alone. I can’t write with people around me.

What makes a great short story?

A good or great short story needs interesting characters, a good plot and a surprise twist at the end.

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 around seven books a month. Because I belong to two book clubs, my reading is eclectic and was even before I joined the book clubs. However, much of what I read is mysteries, but not necessarily in my genre. My most recent “great” book was The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, not a mystery, but conducive to much thought and discussion in the book club that picked it.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

The theme I regularly employ has something to do with gardening since my main character is a botanist who works for a large public garden and has a small garden center, but I also like to have a social theme whether it’s bigotry, environmentalism or something else that makes my books a little deeper than many cozies.

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

The most challenging issue for me is probably run on sentences or slipping into an omniscient narrator voice – but I’m working on it and my three beta readers help me with that. I write in third person and have multiple points of view.

What motivates you to write?

What motivates me to write is the myriad ideas that keep running through my brain – so many that I could spend far more hours a day than I do not writing if there weren’t other things I also enjoy doing or must do.

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

My books go by the month. I started with June and the latest book Murder in the Corn Maze (which is only waiting for a cover right now before it’s published) takes place in October. I thought a corn maze would be a good place to have a murder so a friend and I went to a corn maze. Of course, I still needed characters like the victim and the murderer and the reason he/she killed the victim. I start out with a list of characters both returning characters and always some new ones. I list the characters who could be suspects and why they might be, the victim, who is rarely a nice person, and I determine which of the suspects will be the murderer. I write bios for most of my characters, especially if they will be returning characters. I’m a pantser so I don’t always know what’s going to happen in each chapter, but usually the characters take over and do what they want to do and say what they want to say. I often have a subplot in my books as I do in the latest book, too.

You can find out more about Gloria Alden and her work at her website:
Here’s a little blurb about Gloria’s most recent Catherine Jewel Mystery, The Body in the Goldenrod

After finding five bodies over three months, Catherine hopes discovering bodies is over. Unfortunately, it isn’t. After a Civil War battle reenactment is over, Catherine notices what looks like a body in a field of goldenrod on the other side of the battlefield. The body is Daniel Webster’s, who had many enemies, making it hard to figure which of the suspects is the murderer or someone else. Catherine begins to believe she’s a jinx in Portage Falls and worries the residents will wish she’d never moved there.

Between Catherine wondering who the murderer is and hoping it’s no one she likes, police chief John MacDougal’s mother, starts telling her about a backpacking trip she’d taken with environmentalist, Bruce Twohill. Catherine finds she isn’t the only one who discovers bodies. On the backpacking trip, Martha also found one; a woman in a group of birders they’d joined while backpacking.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Drawing the Reader In

Think of a book you really loved. I mean really loved. Was it because of its perfect plot? A twist ending so surprising it astounded you? Because every word was exactly the right word?

I will go out on a limb and suggest that while those elements may have been present, you loved the book because you became deeply invested in at least one character. You cared about what happened to that individual, in how they would fare in the world they inhabited, which may be very different from any world you will experience.

Writers are beaten about the head and shoulders with the mantra to “show, not tell.” As I write this blog, I am participating in a weeklong Donald Maass workshop. We spent a good portion of day three discussing how to tell, not show.



Here is a diamond of understanding I picked up. Writers, you might try it out and see whether it deepens a story you are working on. Readers, see if you can catch a favorite author sucking you into their make-believe world with this technique.

Have your character tell (yes, tell) about an emotion they are feeling. Incorporate the following elements in the description. [My parenthetical example happens to use first person, but it works as well in third.] Include this in an action scene (not as a reflection or reaction scene) to make it immediate. Make it short so it does not feel to the reader as though the action has stopped.

Step 1. Use an analogy to describe the emotion. This objectifies the emotion and makes it safe for the reader. [My anger glowed as hot and fragile as a freshly blown glass figurine. One false move and everything would shatter.]

Step 2. Have the character make a moral judgement about their emotion. [No matter how much justified, surely God despised this much anger.]

Step 3. Include inner conflict regarding what the character is feeling. [And yet, within that fire, that blinding white rage, I felt a corner of my mind evaluating my posture, the tightness around my eyes, noting sagely that I was showing none of what I felt. The fury, should I let it slip its leash, would come as a complete surprise to the other wedding guests.]

Step 4. Add a touch of self-reflection. [There, I said it: should I let it slip its leash. It would be conscious if I did, and even if others called me insane, I would know it for a conscious effort. It was my beast to wrestle, to control.]

Had you read this on the first or second page would you be interested in reading more about this character? If you read it later in the story, would it deepen your understanding of this character? If this telling occurred while the individual stood as best man, watching the bride-to-be walking down the aisle on her father’s arm, would it have stopped the action, or indeed would it have been part of the action, even though it was all exposition?

Remember, I just learned this and so am practicing, but I do think it works. What about you?

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill 4/12/15

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Kathleen Kaska - Guest Author

Kathleen Kaska describes herself as curious, obsessive, impatient, creative, and nice. Her writing is funny, lighthearted, serious, personal, and unpredictable. Intriguing answers, don't you think? Here are her choice questions and responses.
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)?

That’s a tough question. Who I invited and where we’d dine would depend on my mood, but since I’ve been a bit homesick lately, I’d invited my three wonderful and very lively sisters who live in our home state of Texas. We’d eat at any causal restaurant that served Texas’ own Shiner Bock beer and wouldn’t ask us to leave if we got rowdy. There’s a great pizza place in Austin, Texas called the Pint House that meets the criteria. The pizza is fabulous and the crowd is loud, so we’d fit right in.

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

My most productive writing venue is usually my desk in my room. It’s quiet and my books and files are within reach. However, when I hit a roadblock, I pack my laptop and head to one of many local coffee shops. For some reason, the background chatter doesn’t seem to bother me and the change of location, along with the caffeine, helps get me back on track.

What makes a great short story?

Beyond great writing, a great story needs a main character who readers can relate to; a setting powerful enough to act as a character itself; and a cleverly written plot.

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 ten books a month. I do read in my genre (mystery), but I also read fiction and nonfiction books on topics I’m passionate about: birds, ancient Egypt, travel, food, environmental issues, and poetry, just to name a few. I just read Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World’s Most Loved (and Hated) Team edited by Rob Fleder. Oh, I’m passionate about baseball, too.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

I have two mystery series, one published and one I’m still shopping around. My published series, the Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series, is set in the 1950s; and my other series is set in current times. Both focus on strong women claiming their power in a man’s world.

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

Despite my time being my own, I struggle with getting things finished, not that I miss deadlines— that never happens. I just have a lot of projects I’m working on. When I start to feel stressed about my own imposed deadlines, I make a list of priorities and follow it.

What motivates you to write?

I’m motivated by a strong desire to tell a story, and since my Sydney Lockhart series is lighthearted and humorous, I’m also want to make people laugh.

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

My protagonist, Sydney Lockhart, is a journalist/amateur sleuth. She was close to her grandfather who was murdered when she was only eleven. She was the one who discovered his body. The case went unsolved for many years. In Sydney’s own words, “I don’t like people who do bad things. I never have, never will.”
For more information about Kathleen and her books, check out my blog and website at; Catch me on Facebook at and on Twitter at

Here's s quick grabber for Murder at the Driskill:

You’d think that newspaper reporter Sydney Lockhart, comfortable at home in Austin, Texas, could stay away from hotels and murders therein. But when she and her detective boyfriend, Ralph Dixon, hang out a shingle for their new detective agency, they immediately land a high-profile case, which sends them to the swanky Driskill Hotel.

Businessman Stringer Maynard has invited them to a party to meet his partner/brother-in-law, Leland Tatum, who’s about to announce his candidacy for governor. Maynard needs their help because Tatum is hanging out with the wrong crowd and jeopardizing his chances for winning the election. Before Sydney can finish her first martini, a gunshot sounds and Leland Tatum is found murdered in a suite down the hall.