Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Conversation with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

Lorna Barrett is the nom de plume of bestselling novelist Lorraine Bartlett. Lorraine's other alter ego, L.L. Bartlett, writes psychological suspense and the Jeff Resnick mystery series. She's done it all, from drilling holes for NASA to typing scripts in Hollywood, and lives a life of crime in western New York. Her first sales were to the confession magazine market. In all, she's sold nine short stories, including one on Amazon Shorts.

Lorraine, why do you write under three names?

I write under the name L.L. Bartlett for my Jeff Resnick/psychological suspense series, because my agent at the time felt it would be better to disguise my gender. She felt (and it’s a known fact) that men often will not read books by women.

I write under the name Lorna Barrett because my publisher asked me to take a pseudonym. Some cozy readers don’t want to read books by authors who write darker fiction (like psychological suspense).

I’ll be writing under the name Lorraine Bartlett (yea! my own) because enough people now know that I write cozy mysteries under the name Lorna Barrett. What goes around, comes around.

Tell us about your three mysteries series and if you write them concurrently?

My Jeff Resnick series is currently on hiatus while I concentrate on writing cozy mysteries and building that audience. The first book, Murder on the Mind is out of print in hardcover and paperback, but is available as a Kindle download and on audio from Books in Motion. The second book, Dead in Red, is still available in hardcover. (It’s easiest to buy it from Amazon.)

The Booktown Mystery series features Tricia Miles, who owns a mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue, in the little village of Stoneham, also known as Booktown because of all the bookstores.

The Victoria Square Mysteries feature Katie Bonner, who takes over as manager of an artisans arcade after its owner has been murdered. The first book, A Matter Of Murder, was be released on Feb. 3, 2011.

You’ve had a varied background. Tell us about drilling holes for NASA.

After I got laid of from my first job as a secretary, the State of New York sent me out to a machine shop. I worked production for 18 months. We did contract work for NASA and I drilled and tapped holes on parts for the Shuttle. I was very picky about drill sharpness and didn’t let my parts go out of tolerance--so I got to do a lot of those NASA parts! Very boring work, but I had lots of time to plot out stories in between pieces.

Which genre of scripts did you write in Hollywood?

I didn’t write them, I typed them. I worked for 20th Century Fox in their Script Department. We broke down scripts, retyped them, and sometimes collated them. This was before computers. I’m sure one person now does the work of about 20 people. We worked on "Mash," "Trapper John MD," and typed lots of movie scripts. (This tells you how long ago that job was!)

What’s your writing schedule like and do you aim for a certain amount of words per day?

I try for (and often don’t make) 1250 words a day. Some days are better than others. When the writing is going well, I take weekends off. When it isn’t, I try to write seven days a week.

What’s it take to get on the bestseller list?

At least 10,000 sales the first week a book is out.

My second Booktown Mystery, Bookmarked for Death, made it to the extended Times list--starting at #33 and rocketing all the up to #30. My third Booktown Mystery, Bookplate Special, was #20 on the in-print list, which is a bit more impressive.

While I can't be certain how I made it at all, I have to believe it was the support of Barnes and Noble, and hundreds of independent booksellers that made it possible--and of course, my readers. Bookstores took to the series because the protagonist is a bookstore owner. A lot of handselling happened, and I will be eternally grateful.

How important is social networking online?

I’ve gained a lot of new readers because of social networking, so I consider it an important tool for promotion. That said, you can get sucked in and waste a lot of time. I try to log on in the morning, post something, and then log out. (Although I do go in to answer questions readers ask, or comment on their comments.)

How do you promote your books?

I don’t travel a lot, so I rely on the Internet and snail mail. I send out bookmarks, bookplates and postcards, I belong to a number of reader loops, I network with other authors, and I belong to several social networks. It all takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it if I can expand my reader base.

Advice to fledgling writers?

Read, write, rewrite. And rewrite a lot. Also, have patience--a lot of it. Surgeons don’t operate their first day out--most first manuscripts aren’t publishable, either. Don’t take the easy way out. Decisions you make because you’re antsy to be published can come back and bite you later. (Says she who has been severely bitten.) Join a writers organization. If you’re writing mystery, there’s no better place to be than the Sisters In Crime Guppies Chapter.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Comedian/Novelist Chris Grabenstein

A prolific novelist, Chris Grabenstein began his career in a comedy troupe with Bruce Willis. He also wrote for Jim Henson and the Muffets as well as television and radio commercials, his mentor James Patterson. He now concentrates on thrillers, children's ghostly novels and screenwriting.

Chris, what was it like to perform in the same comedy troupe with Bruce Willis during the early 1980s?

A lot of fun improv, like they did on the TV show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" is a terrific way to force your imagination to come up with something wonderful right away. I still use improv techniques every day when I write. Back in the early 80s, Bruce Willis was just, well, a young actor named Bruce who had moved to New York City, like everybody else in the troupe, looking for his "big break." Agents and casting people would come to our shows, hoping to discover talent--like that scene in "The Goodbye Girl" where Richard Dreyfus is in that horrible production of Richard III down in a Greenwich Village basement. That was us. Bruce, as I recall, was tending bar. I was a temp secretary. Others were waiters. We all did our day jobs to make money and then came alive at night when we went to rehearsals or did our shows.

How did James Patterson discover your writing talent?

In 1984, tired of making ten dollars a show doing comedy while spending forty hours a week to make money to support my "habit," I decided to look for a job where I could be creative during the workday, too. Mr. Patterson at the time was the creative director of J. Walter Thompson Advertising in New York and ran a full page ad in The New York Times, headlined "Write If You Want Work." Two thousand people took the test. I was the first person hired. Jim took me under his wing and taught me how to write copy...techniques, which translated, later, into how to write books people can't put down.

Tell us about your writing background in advertising and screenwriting.

I spent seventeen years writing (mostly) television and radio commercials, ending my career as an executive vice president and group creative director at Young & Rubicam. In my early years of writing advertising, before it became an 80 hour a week kind of career, I also found time (following Mr. Patterson's example) to work on screenplays, etc. "The Christmas Gift," a made for TV movie I wrote with a college buddy, is still on the air every year. Starring John Denver, it premiered on CBS in 1986 but still earns residuals every year. In 2009, my partner and I split $26. We're talking big time. I also wrote for Jim Henson and The Muppets and took a lot of screenwriting courses. A lot of what I learned in all those writing experiences helps me in my day to day novel crafting.

A number of your mysteries have been published since 2006 when you won the Anthony Award for your first novel, Tilt a Whirl. Are you a rapid writer or did you have unpublished manuscripts in reserve when the first was published?

Well, they've been published since September, 2005 (right before my 50th birthday). Six Ceepak mysteries (Tilt a Whirl, which won the Anthony Award for best first mystery, Mad Mouse, Whack a Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and this month, Rolling Thunder), two Christopher Miller Holiday Thrillers (Slay Ride, Hell for the Holidays), and three middle grades ghost stories in my Haunted Mystery series: The Crossroads (winner of the Agatha and an Anthony), The Hanging Hill (winner of the Agatha), and, this August, The Smoky Corridor [and more]

I am, I think, a disciplined writer and, after all those years in advertising, used to sitting down and writing for a good long time every day. I also have a bunch of unpublished manuscripts as, it seems, I typically write three to four books, a short story, and a play per year.

How did your children’s ghostly novels come about? Did you plan in advance that your wife would do voice overs for the audio editions?

I wanted to write something that my nieces and nephews could read--since the adult mysteries and thrillers were all a little too adult. And, even though the stepmother, Judy Magruder, in the books, is based on my wife J.J. Myers, it wasn't our plan that she do the narration for the audio books. When, however, Random House asked me for suggestions, I gave them two: If they wanted a male, go with Jeff Woodman who does a brilliant job on the Ceepak books for Audible, or J.J. Myers, who knows the material inside out, because she is my first editor. They picked J.J. and she won a Headphones award for her work on The Crossroads. She is really, really good. Created not just voices but characters for all 42 people in that book.

You have quite a family of pets. Have they helped with your storylines?

Definitely. Fred, the dog, helps me on a daily basis because I use his dog walks to day dream about story lines. He is also the inspiration for much of what Zipper does in the YA books. My first dog, Buster, was the inspiration for Ceepak's dog Barkley. The cats help, too. Parker, the gray guy, became the crazycat Jinx, the back-from-the-dead feline in The Hanging Hill, and Tiger Lilly, who is always getting into everything around our apartment, was the inspiration for Curiosity Cat, the character Judy Magruder writes children's books about and who we brought to life this year in a play I wrote for the Children's Theatre of Knoxville, called, "Curiosity Cat", of course. That play, which had its world premiere last month and was a big hit with the kids in the cast as well as the audiences, will be available for production everywhere soon via The Samuel French Company.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain amount of words or hours at the keyboard each day? And do you write every day, including while you travel?

I try to write 2,000 new words every day, no matter how long it takes. Some days, I'm done in three to four hours. Others, 8 or 10! I try to write Monday--Friday and have found that trains and airplanes make great writing rooms, if I have my headphones and a good iTunes playlist. I take a week off between projects to recharge my brain and usually spend the time doing something that allows me to daydream--like washing windows or working on our roof garden.

What are the main ingredients in a bestselling novel?

Gosh, if I knew, maybe I'd be a best seller! I try to write the kinds of books I loved to read when I was working in advertising and flying around the country on shoots or to visit clients: Page burners. Compelling characters and stories that you can't put down. Conflict and tension on every page. Lots of reversals and twists. The longer I am in publishing, however, the more I realize becoming a true best seller requires the major support of your publisher to position you to become a best seller. Without it, you can write the best book in the world and very few people may ever know.

What’s the best way to attract an agent?

Write a story they can't put down. Something they haven't seen. Something with your own unique voice. When I was a group creative director, I always hired copy writers who had something in their portfolio that made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that ad!" With manuscripts, you need, now more than ever, to elicit a similar response. The best place to "meet" an agent, I think, is at a conference or seminar. I've heard agents say the same thing.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep writing every day. And--this was the hardest advice I was ever given--decide whether you want to be a writer or to write the one book you have written and keep rewriting because you know it will be a best seller just as soon as people stop rejecting it. To be a writer means becoming someone who is constantly writing something new, not constantly reworking the same idea until someone buys it. Eventually, you need to put that first book away and move on to the second or third. Tilt a Whirl, my "first" book, was my fourth manuscript.

Also, learn from others. Find a book you love and tear it apart. Strip it down and analyze its structure. Look for the ghost in the machine. What makes it tick? Learn the craft from a master craftsperson you admire.

Chris's website:

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dialogue Tags

by J. Michael Orenduff
(Lefty Award winner and author of the Pot Thief mystery series)

Robert Parker was one of the most successful crime writers of all time, having penned almost 70 books in the Spenser, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series. He wrote 1,000 words every day, no more and no less. His many books in the pipeline led me to quip a year after his death that he had published more books dead than I had alive.

In a review of one of Parker’s books shortly before he died, I was surprised by the reviewer’s criticism of Parker’s reliance on ‘he said’ and ‘I said’ in dialogue. I had read all his books and never noticed an overuse of dialogue tags. So I grabbed a Parker off the shelf and started reading. The reviewer was right. Parker ended most of his sentences of dialogue with “he said,” “she said,” or “I said.” I was astonished that I had never noticed. I finally put it down to Parker’s prose being so good that he could get away with it.

If I could miss that in Robert Parker, I could miss it in my own writing.  So I reviewed my own use of dialogue tags. I found that I didn’t use them as frequently as Parker. But I did notice in my review of my dialogue that my most successful ones used fewer or no tags at all. In the time since I read that review, I’ve given a lot of thought to dialogue tags. I always notice them when I read. I have come to believe the best dialogue has no tags:

“I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
“It’s the restaurant syndrome, Hubie.”
“Restaurant syndrome? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Maybe you know it by its original name, le syndrome de restaurant.”
I groaned. “Please, no more French words and phrases.”
“But that’s it. That’s the syndrome. You start working in a restaurant, and you have to learn all those French terms. It begins to affect your thinking, like the twins thing.”
“The twins thing?”
“Yeah. You know, like how twins have this special language that makes it easy for them to communicate with each other, but it messes them up when they try to deal with normal people. Restaurant people are like that. We may start out normal, but after you begin using words like prix fixe, hors-d’oeures, a la carte, escargots, and raison d’etre, you get a little crazy.”
Raison d’etre?”
“I think it’s a raisin soufflĂ©.”

This passage is a conversation between my protagonist, Hubie, and his sidekick, Suzannah. The text makes it clear that they’re alone at a table in their favorite watering hole. How does the reader know the first speaker is Hubie? Because he is the one having problems. But even if the reader doesn’t make the connection, it is clear that Hubie is speaking because the response mentions him. I could have started the dialogue with, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I said. That would not be bad but I like it better without the tag. People don’t use dialogue tags when they speak, so keeping tags out of your dialogue makes it easier for the reader to fall into that perfect state when reading dialogue—thinking you are there listening to the characters.”

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read J. Michael Orenduff’s interview.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Why Isn’t Reality Enough?

by Sandra Parshall

The next time you’re in the fiction section of a library or bookstore, take a moment to really see what’s around you. Each of those novels holds between its covers a distinct world that was created inside someone’s head.

Every year thousands of fictional worlds, inhabited by nonexistent people living out imaginary lives, are written, published and sold. The hidden hunger for made-up stories is insatiable—and unique. No other animal feels a desire, a need, to live simultaneously in the real world and in a wild variety of alternative, imaginary worlds.

Why do people have such a strong compulsion to tell and to hear, to write and to read, fictional versions of human experience? Why isn’t reality enough?

Reading fiction is usually seen as an escape from reality—so much so that some parents worry their children read too much and don’t spend enough time with other children. They feel their children will be isolated and fail to develop the people skills necessary to succeed in society. A series of psychological studies done over the past few years, though, should set the parents’ minds at ease. In every study frequent readers of fiction were more understanding of other people’s viewpoints, better at reading the moods of others and more open to new experiences. They suffered less from loneliness and social isolation than people who primarily read nonfiction.

Fiction has social benefits even when it’s not in print form and bound between covers. In a 2010 study of pre-school children, a team of psychologists found that the more fictional stories the kids listened to, and the more fictional movies they saw, the better able they were to understand other people’s viewpoints and beliefs. Watching television, however, didn’t provide the same benefits. The psychologists theorized that TV shows are too simplistic and don’t challenge the mind and emotions the way complex forms of fiction do.

We need stories in order to make sense of human life. While we’re immersed in a fictional world, we set aside our own beliefs and concerns and adopt the point of view of the protagonist. The two worst things we can say about any fictional character are: “He/she didn’t seem real to me” and “I didn’t care about the characters.”

Most of us don’t read fiction out of mere curiosity, to watch characters we don’t care about move through a series of events we can never accept in the fictional world. We want to understand it, however different it is from our own experiences. Understanding fictional events and people makes us more open minded in the real world.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you read Sandra’s interview and learn more about her.)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elmore Leonard Interview

“Dutch” Leonard’s overnight success began in 1951, when he flipped a mental coin to decide between writing crime novels and westerns. “Westerns won because I liked western movies a lot,” he said, “and because there was a wonderful market for western short stories. You could aim at the Saturday Evening Post or Colliers, and if you missed there, try Argosy, Blue Book, and on down to the lesser paying pulp magazines, the most prestigious being Dime Western and Zane Grey. Right behind them were Ten-Story Western and Fifteen Western Tales."

The late author had always been an avowed reader. “A bookworm, yes,” he said, “beginning with The Bobbsey Twins and The Book House volumes of abridged classics that included everything from Beowulf to Treasure Island. In the fifth grade I read most of All Quiet on the Western Front, serialized in the Detroit Times, and I wrote a World War I play that was staged in the classroom, my first piece of writing.”

His first nine years were spent south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the youngest of two children. He lived in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Memphis before moving to Detroit in 1934 during the World Series. Raised a Catholic, he graduated from Detroit High School and the University of Detroit, both Jesuit institutions where he majored in English and philosophy.

A baseball player during high school, he acquired his nickname “Dutch” from teammates, who borrowed it from the Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher. The second Dutch Leonard served in the Navy during World War II with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific. Four years later, he acquired a bride and a new job with an advertising agency.

Leonard lusted for full-time writing, and remembered a letter from his agent in 1951, which attempted to discourage him from quitting his advertising copywriting job to freelance. He had concentrated on truck advertising for Chevrolet and, by that time, had a tank full of writing catchy ads. Rising at five o’clock, he wrote two pages of fiction before going to work “with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer ever since.”

While working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writing by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he wrote fiction on the job. His first two short stories were rejected, so he decided to spend more time and effort on research. Although he had never set foot west of the Mississippi, he concentrated on the Southwest, Apaches, the cavalry and cowboys, while subscribing to Arizona Highways magazine to learn all he could about the arid terrain. His first sale the previous year was a novelette titled, “Trial of the Apache,” which sold to Argosy magazine for their December issue. His next story, “Tizwin,” earned him a rejection letter from Argosy and a sale to Ten Story Western, which eventually appeared in print in 1952 under the title, “Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo.”

Thirty of his short stories sold during the 1950s, four of them to Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post, while the majority appeared in Dime Western and Zane Grey. Leonard sold everything he wrote with the exception of his first two short stories and several with contemporary settings. By the end of the 1950s, television had taken over. 

“The pulps faded away and the book advances didn’t compare to what was once offered. It took nearly two years to sell Hombre, for an advance of $1,250.” Multiple printings followed, with the book listed among the twenty-five all-time best westerns. Hombre more than made up for its meager beginning, along with a film version starring Paul Newman, which earned the writer a modest $10,000.
Gunsight was his last western novel, written at the request of Marc Jaffe in 1979 for Bantam Books.

Leonard then flipped his genre coin again and found that crime can pay quite well. Stick and LaBrava made him an overnight success, nicely padding his wallet along with the 1985 film version of Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, a production he prefers to ignore. The writer’s innate humor is deadpan, he said, not slapstick.
Glitz sparkled for eighteen weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, ensuring him top billing on the literary marquee, but although the film rights were optioned by Lorimar, production stalled for more than two years.

His sudden popularity cut deeply into his writing time. “It’s nice to get fan mail,” he said, “a few letters a week, and being recognized on the street, but the interviews are wearing me out. I’m asked questions about writing, and about my purpose in the way I write that I’ve never thought of before. And I have to take time to think on the spot and come up with an answer. I’m learning quite a bit about what I do from recent interviews, and getting a few answers.

Interviewers asked Leonard for advice for budding writers. He usually responded with: “The worst thing a novice can do is to try to sound like a writer. I guess the first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite.” His advice was simply to write. “Don’t talk about it, do it. Read constantly, study the authors you like, pick one and imitate him, the way a painter learns fine art by copying the masters. I studied Hemingway, as several thousand other writers have done. I feel that I learned to write westerns by reading and rereading For Whom the Bells Toll.”

A portrait of Hemingway hung on the wall of his office, reminding him that he studied the revered novelist’s work for “construction, for what you leave out as well as what you put in. But I was not influenced by his attitude, thank God. My attitude is much less serious. I see absurdities in serious situations, influenced in this regard by Vonnegut, Richard Bissel, and Mark Harris, and this shows in my writing. It’s your attitude that determines your sound, not style.”

Leonard wrote for many years in longhand on specially-ordered yellow sheets, rewriting and revising until he was ready to type his final draft.

“I’ll do a few pages this way and then put it in my Olympia manual office-model typewriter,” he said. “I hate to change ribbons, but have no interest in electronic advances. How the words are eventually reproduced is not my concern. I revise as I type, aiming for five or six clean pages a day. Then I continue to go back and revise and the pages begin to pile up. Sometimes I’ll go back and add a scene or shift scenes around, but most of the revising has to do with simplifying, cutting out excess words, trimming to make it lean or to adjust the rhythm of the prose.”

(The interview was excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers).

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing a Series

by Rhys Bowen

The truth is that the choice is often not ours to make. Many writers, including myself, find out that we’re writing a series when the publisher accepts the first book and asks, “Do you already have an idea for the next one?”

In fact most mystery writers get their start writing a series, and this has many advantages: you have a chance to build a readership over several books. You develop a presence on the shelves of the chain stores. You have a chance to develop an ever deepening relationship with your main character, rather like an ongoing friendship in which he or she reveals more and more interesting details about themselves and their pasts.

In many ways it's more comfortable to write a series. Each book starts with known facts, familiar characters, setting, subsidiary characters.

Of course there are disadvantages to writing a series: The biggest one is that you are stuck with your sleuth. Make sure you like him and find him interesting at the beginning. Agatha Christie came to loathe Hercule Poirot. You’re stuck with the environment. If you aren’t really fascinated with llama breeding, don’t make your sleuth a llama breeder. You’ll get mail from llama fanciers every day . You’l l be expected to go to llama shows and knit llama sweaters.

Certain crimes will never happen in your environment.

You are not free to try new approaches—alternating points of view, darker approach etc. Make sure you start off with the kind of book you want. If you start with a cozy series you can’t go dark in the middle, as I have found out. Your readers expect a certain type of book and will be angry if you change. My first Evan was deemed a cozy series. As I’ve come to know Evan better the books have become darker and meatier but they are still designated as cozy. There are some places I could never go with the stories. Likewise the readers of my Royal Spyness series expect to laugh and be entertained. They would be shocked by anything too dark happening.

And the last disadvantage: if the series becomes popular, you’ll be expected to go on writing it forever, which takes from you the chance to try something new. Or, as in my case, you want to try a new idea and find yourself juggling several books a year.It’s hard. A writer should be free to write whatever wonderful ideas come into her head, but writing these days is a business. I expect it always was. I expect Mr. Dickens’s publisher said to him, “Charlie, I told you, no regency romances.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

Julie Garwood Revisted

     Julie Garwood is the author of more than three dozen historical and romantic suspense novels, and 40 million copies of her books are in print. At least twenty  of them have appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list. She also writes YA novels as Emily Chase. 
   Julie, tell us about The Ideal Man.
   It's a story of  a young woman who is facing two threats.  The first one has been with her from her childhood, and the second one comes from an incident that she is thrown into by coincidental circumstance. 
    Despite the fear she's faced since she was young, she's managed to become a dedicated surgeon. She's successful and self assured; yet, there's always that vulnerability inside. She's never really allowed herself to let go . . . until the second threat appears. She accidentally becomes a witness to a crime, and the FBI agent on the case not only helps her resolve her fears but also opens her up to emotions she's never felt before.
   How did growing up in a large Irish family lend itself to storytelling?
  The Irish are by nature great storytellers I think. It seems to come with the genes. They bring out all the nuances of a situation, and I loved sitting around the dinner  table listening to my family talk. Also, growing up in a family of seven children taught me that self-expression had to be quick and forceful.

   Why did you begin your novel writing with YA books and historicals?

   I had young children when I began, so I was drawn to that genre, but I was also interested in historical novels. I had taken a medieval history class in college that I absolutely loved, so I was following that passion as well. My first book, A Girl Named Summer, was published by Scholastic, and shortly after that, Gentle Warrior was published by Pocket Books. The historical novels found a growing audience, and the publishers asked for more of them, so that's that direction my writing has taken.

    While I really enjoy writing the  adult books, I'm hoping to find the time to write a few more for young  readers someday.

    How have your books evolved over the years?

    I haven't changed my themes much. I still write about family and loyalty, and I try to insert some humor into my stories. There's always an element of intrigue or suspense and the romance between the hero and heroine is absolutely key. The setting has changed somewhat. I started with historical novels and I've moved into contemporary settings in the last few years. I enjoy each of them, so my goal is to find the time to write both.

   What's your writing schedule like?

   I like to begin writing early in the morning. It's a routine I started when my children were young. I'd get up early and work on my book before they were awake. I usually have the TV on, though I'm not watching it. It's just background noise. This is a habit that developed when I was a child doing my homework around a table with my siblings. In order to concentrate, I learned to block out the distractions.

    Do you outline your novels and do you aim for a certain amount of words each day?

    I know where the story is headed, but I don't follow a rigid outline. I find that if I let the story evolve, there will always be some surprises along the way that make it more fun. I can't predict how much I'll produce. There are times when the words just flow and I'll write one or two chapters in a day. Then there are times when I can't seem to get a scene right and I may spend two or three days on one page.

    In your opinion, why do some books make the bestseller lists while other equally well-written books fail?

    That's a million dollar question. If I had the answer to that, I'd be a genius. I do believe, though, that there are a great many elements involved. They include some marketing, some talent, and a great deal of luck.

   Advice to fledgling novelists?

   First, stay focused and set aside some time each and every day to work on your writing. It's important that you get into a rhythm and have the discipline to finish your manuscript.

   Second, let your voice be heard in your writing. If your reader can  hear you talking to them in your words, they're more likely to listen to what you have to say.

   Third, develop a network. Writers' organizations and conferences and conferences give you opportunities to meet agents and editor, and that will help you learn more about the publishing business and perhaps give you a leg up in getting published.

    How would you occupy your time if you weren't writing?

    Family would probably take up most of my time. I have a large extended family, so there's always something going on.

   Thank you for an enjoyable visit.

   You can visit Julie Garwood's website at:
    At Facebook:
    and at Twitter: @JulieGarwood


Monday, June 27, 2016

Award-winning Author Julie Kramer

Julie Kramer moved from fellow journalist to novelist. She writes a mystery series set in the desperate world of television news—a world she knows well from her career working as a freelance news producer for NBC and CBS, as well as running the WCCO-TV I-Team in Minneapolis, where she won numerous national investigative awards. Her thrillers take readers inside inside the newsrooms and demonstrate how decisions are made  amid the chaos. 

She's won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, Minnesota Book Award and the RT Book Review's Best First Mystery. She's also been a finalist for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark, and RT Best Amateur Sleuth Awards.

Julie, tell us about Shunning Sarah.

Shunning Sarah pits two very different cultures against each other:  TV news vs. the Amish. I grew up on a family farm in rural Minnesota near some Amish and later spent a career in television news. Writing this book allowed me to incorporate both experiences and live my research. It is a very topical story dealing with real life issues amid the closed society of the Amish - including hair cutting by a rogue Amish sect.

Here’s the story basics:  A sketch of a homicide victim’s face is broadcast on the news, but when she is identified as Sarah Yoder, a local Amish woman, the police have difficulty investigating because her family believes in forgiveness rather than prosecution. Because of the biblical ban on graven imagines, they also object to her picture being used by the media. But when a TV reporter finds a clue the cops miss, she uncovers a dark web of fraud and deception - driven by motives as old as the Bible: sex and money.

How does this latest novel differ from the others in the series?

While each of my thrillers features the same protagonist - investigative TV reporter Riley Spartz - they are all self-contained, so new readers don’t have to start with my debut to make sense of the others. But each book delves into very different murders and news stories, so fans won’t feel they’ve read this before.  Besides incorporating Amish elements, SHUNNING SARAH also looks at how television newsrooms are changing - and not always for the better.

Why did you decide to use two word titles with the same letters for all your novels? 

While writing my debut, Stalking Susan was my working title. My editor loved it and didn’t want to hear any others. For my second book, my working title was Never Worn - after a wedding dress want ad. I thought it sounded mysterious and poignant. My editor thought it sounded dull and boring. In a smart-alecky moment, I asked, “So what do you want to call it?  MISSING MARK?” She said, yeah...and didn’t want to hear any other titles. That’s how my books became branded. The verb is actually more important than the name. Once I’ve locked in on the verb I figure out a title character name. For instance, I wanted to use “shunning” and I needed an Amish name, so I picked “Sarah.”

How did your protagonist  Riley Spartz come about? You gave your TV reporter an unusual name. How did it originate?

Her name didn’t seem unusual at the time. Spartz was my mother’s maiden name and I used it as a salute to her. I’ve always liked the name Riley, and had wanted to use it for one of my kids. But my husband didn’t. So they are named Alex and Andrew. But when the time came to name my heroine, I didn’t hesitate.  Neither my agent nor my editor ever suggested changing her name.

 Which character traits do you share with Riley Spartz?

I spent a career in television news, I like to think my protagonist and I are both smart, savvy and relish scooping the competition. But she is more ratings driven than I was....partly because it’s now become more of a necessity in TV news. I was always a news producer so my work was behind the scenes  - in the field and in the newsroom. I decided for storytelling purposes, my heroine needed the added pressure of being on camera.

You’ve had some great reviews. Which do you cherish most?

I’ve gotten fabulous national reviews from People Magazine, USA Today, and the Associated Press, but I cherish any positive review and especially enjoy hearing from readers.

Advice for fledgling novelists?

Don’t worry on page one whether or not your concept is believable or not. It’s your job as a writer to make it believable. That’s a better question to ask a hundred pages into your manuscript, otherwise you might talk yourself out of a cool premise. Remember truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes a reader will ask me, “That couldn’t really happen, right?” I reply that nothing in my books is as crazy as what they’ll see on the news tonight. 

What’s the biggest difference between writing fiction and writing news?

In fiction, books always have resolution. In real life news events, that doesn’t always happen.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Choosing Characters for Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery

by Marja McGraw

Jean asked me what inspired the personalities in the book, and this is the short version.

One of my favorite authors, Dorothy Bodoin, and I discussed that we’d both like to try our skills on a time travel book. Further inspired by two songs, Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce, and That Sunday, That Summer as sung by Natalie Cole, I took a step out in faith. I could do this, or at least I’d try my best to write a time travel story.

I thought about people I know and how they might react to life if they lived in another time period; specifically, 1909. Honestly, I have no idea what led me to choose that year. I remembered older people I’ve known throughout my life. They loved to share stories about growing up in an earlier era. Somehow it all came together.

The main character in Choosing One Moment is Carrie McFerrin. I had to give her a lot of thought and determined she must be a mystery writer whose skills someone wanted to put to use. There had to be a purpose for her time travel. Is she based on me? Not at all. Well, she is a bit clumsy, and that’s a trait we share.

She traveled to 1909 as the request of her great-aunt Genny, who’d traveled before her. I might add that Carrie didn’t travel willingly. Genny reminds me a bit of my own aunt.

My husband inspired more than one character because of the many sides to his personality (the good guys). Inspired is the key word. The world needs good men, and he was one of them.

The book includes an aged woman called Mother Possum. When I was a child there was a woman in her nineties who was called Mother Possum, and I’ve never forgotten her. The name alone made her fodder for a character. And, yes, her surname was actually Possum.

I could go through character by character, but that would be too time-consuming. In my other mysteries, the people are purely fictional, for the most part. I can’t explain it, but this time travel story felt more personal. It begged for personalities that I’m familiar with and people who have played a role in my life.

Yes, the characters are fictional, but they’re inspired by the best, and the worst (don’t forget the bad guys). And remember, there’s a killer on the loose in the fictional town of Little Creek.

One last thought, and that’s that an old crank phone hangs in my guest room. It was begging to be in a story. I couldn’t resist. It’s a link to the past.

Jean also asked about research for the story. As I mentioned, I grew up hearing stories related by elderly people. Those led me to read old newspaper articles, books about the time period, research (and images) of clothing in and around 1909, and anything else I could lay my hands on. The fact that people from that time period didn’t have the amenities we have today played a large part, too. Can you imagine what they might think if they saw today’s appliances, cell phones, cars or jetliners? What about a microwave oven or a dishwasher? A man on the moon? They’d probably laugh at at that idea.

Ah, the differences are too many to think about. If we traveled in time, imagine what it would be like to suddenly have things that we take for granted disappear from our lives.

Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to give a little background on Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery. It was an experience I enjoyed, and I think readers will, too.

About the story:

Mystery writer Carrie McFerrin has inherited an old family house and all of its contents from her Great Aunt Genny.

While taking inventory of the attic contents, she comes across an old wooden crank telephone. Thinking the old phone would look perfect in her vintage kitchen, she hangs it on the wall by the back door, and an old, yellowed piece of paper asking for help falls to the floor.

The impossible happens when the disconnected old phone rings – three rings, a pause, and three more rings.

Carrie picks up the receiver, wondering what’s going on, and her life suddenly changes – forever.

Nothing will ever be the same.

Author Bio:

My friend Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and a city building department.  She has lived and worked in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona.

She wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja writes two mystery series: The Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries, which are light reading with a touch of humor. She also occasionally writes stories that aren’t part of a series.

Marja says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder!

She now lives in Washington, where life is good.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jeffrey Deaver Revisited

International bestselling novelist Jeffrey Deaver has had a varied background as a journalist, folk singer and lawyer. His first novel, Manhattan is My Beat, was published in 1988 and his books have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including The New York Times and The Times of London. His books have sold in 150 countries and translated into 25 languages.

Jeff, have your past careers served you well as a novelist?

My other careers have always been ways to allow me to make a living while I went after my goal of becoming a full-time novelist. I began publishing various stories and poems in my teens and finally published my first novel in my thirties. Journalism taught me to research, and law, curiously, was helpful in organizing my books—I outline fanatically.

When and where did your writing begin and did your early environment influence your work?

I began writing when I was about 11. I wrote my first novel then (really a short story, though I called it a novel). I was a nerd when I was young and thus I was drawn to reading and writing. My parents were both creative and encouraged me. I was reading mainstream novels, thrillers and fantasy mostly, at a very young age.

How did Kathryn Dance come into being and why did you decide to write about a female California Bureau of Investigation agent and body language expert?

I realized that I had many ideas for what I thought would be compelling thrillers, but they weren't appropriate for my evidence-driven forensics novels (my Lincoln Rhyme series). So I decided to create a character who was the opposite of Lincoln: A woman, with children, who lives in California. She would have little interest in the science of crime solving, but rather focus on the human factor—body language, linguistics, interrogation and interviewing. The psychology of crime. I've been very pleased at how popular she's become. Even readers who love Lincoln Rhyme appreciate Kathryn's skills. After all, they are friends.

You’ve won or been nominated in a number of countries for too many writing awards to list here. Which one means the most to you and do awards translate into bigger sales?

I think I'm most pleased that my stand-alone, The Bodies Left Behind, was named the novel of the year by the prestigious International Thriller Writers organization. It was a book that I spent a great amount of time on and was challenging to write—it contains one of the best twists I've been able to work into my fiction. As far as sales go, certainly awards get readers' attention, but in the end it's a book quality that dictates high or low sales.

Which of your mystery thrillers required the most research and do you have CBI agents at the ready to call when you need information?

Garden of Beasts took the most research. It's set in Berlin in 1936, and I wanted the details and atmosphere to be 100% accurate. Apparently it was, since a fan who escaped Germany in the late '30s reported to me that it was the most accurate—and moving--novel about that time that he'd ever read. Regarding research, I tend not to use living, breathing sources much. I prefer book and internet research, since when you talk to practitioners, you tend to skew the story to tell theirs; I want to make sure to tell my story.

Your Roadside Crosses novel, third in your high tech trilogy, features a teenage boy bent on revenge for real or imagined abuse, and is chilling. Did your antagonist evolve from Columbine and the University of Virginia killings? And why the crosses along the highway foretelling his planned murders?

I was actually inspired to write Roadside Crosses by another tragic incident: the teenage girl in St. Louis who was "befriended" by the mother of her former friend, posing as a boyfriend. He then told her that the world would be better off without her—and she killed herself. I wanted to write about the responsibility of bloggers and the social networking phenomenon.

Were you pleased or disappointed in the screen adaptations of HBO’s A Maiden’s Grave starring James Gardner and/or Universal Studios’ adaptation of The Bone Collector starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie? Did you take part in any way in the filming?

My theory about movies is that I respect the process of filmmaking very much, but I don't want to have anything to do with it. My skill—and pleasure—is in writing thrillers, not scripts. I don't have a lot of patience for authors who complain about Hollywood's treatment of their books. How many of them have sent the check's back in protest? None that I know of.

What was it like to play a corrupt lawyer on your favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns?”

Exhausting! I've never worked so hard in my life. I have great respect for actors too, as I do for scriptwriters and directors, as I mentioned above. But, despite the fact I love to experience new things, I'll probably hang up my acting hat for the time being.

What’s your writing environment like and your schedule? 

I work eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. I do at least one book a year, and so I work even when I'm on book tour (which generally amounts to about three months every year). I outline. I spend eight months outlining each book. And the outlines end up being about 150-200 pages. Thrillers of the sort I write must be structured. It's a waste of time to start writing and hope for inspiration along the way. Pilots and surgeons don't wait for inspiration. Why should authors?

Advice to fledgling mystery/thriller writers?

Write the sort of book you enjoy reading. Outline the books of your favorite authors (the successful ones only!) and study how they create their fiction. Write your own outline. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Ignore rejection. Keep writing; never stop!

Jeff's website is

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A visit with Axel Brand (aka Richard S. Wheeler)

Award-winning novelist Richard Wheeler has published more than 70 books, among them westerns, historicals, biographies and nonfiction. But few know that he's also Axel Brand, mystery writer. He kept his identity secret from critics since his debut mystery, Hotel Dick, hit the bookstores. That is until now. Next in his series is The Dead Genius.

Richard, why, after publishing 70 books of various genres, did you decide to write a mystery series?

 I love mysteries. These would be a change of pace for me. I'm always looking for new worlds to conquer.

Your pseudonym, Axel Brand, sounds more like a Western author. How did you come up with it?

It's at the top of the alphabet. That means the books will probably be shelved at eye level in any alpha-organized collection, which means they are more likely to be seen and read.

Why did you set your series in the 1940s as opposed to the present time?

There are few mysteries set in that period. Also, it allowed me to employ gumshoe detection without dealing with modern forensic sciences. The series is set in 1940s Milwaukee, where I grew up, a big industrial city I remember well, and one little resembling cities now. In my stories the cops sometimes catch streetcars to get where they're going.

How difficult was it to make the switch to the mystery genre? And did you read a lot of mystery novels before you began writing them?

It wasn't difficult at all. I had to begin with an apparent crime, and let my hero work on it. I've read mysteries much of my life, and have no idea how many. The thing is, mysteries are stories like other fiction, so one starts by spinning a story.

Briefly tell us about your protagonist, Lieutenant Joe Sonntag, and your debut novel, The Hotel Dick.

Well, I loved Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday when I was growing up, so I wanted a low-key detective who used shoe-leather to get down to the facts. I proposed calling my guy Joe Sunday, and the publishers axed that idea, but they bought Joe Sonntag, which amused everyone, and fit Milwaukee perfectly.

What kind of predicament did you get Sonntag into in your forthcoming novel, due to be released in July?

The novel is called The Dead Genius, and the dilemma is whether there was a crime at all. The victim seems to have died a natural death, but Sonntag's superior, Captain Ackerman, has a hunch it was not natural, and sends Sonntag out on a fruitless, dumb investigation that consumes a lot of the resources of the police. Sonntag, meanwhile, is annoyed to be on a case based only on a lousy hunch.

You mention a number of former Hollywood stars in your debut mystery novel. Was that the result of your years in Hollywood as an aspiring actor and screenwriter?

Not really. One of the things that intrigued me about the forties was the look-alike contests that were popular then. People who looked like Shirley Temple or Alan Ladd or Dorothy Lamour could compete, and win prizes for looking the most like the star. Sometimes they would get a trip to Hollywood and a studio tour as the prize, and get a signed picture of the person they resembled. All that, transplanted to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was intriguing, and I built on it. The victim, the hotel detective J. Adam Bark, was involved in the look-alike contests.

Which of your varied genres do you enjoy researching and writing most?

I probably enjoy my biographical novels the most. These require that I remain true to history and true to the character I am depicting, so there is much more challenge to them, and it is also easier to slip up. And because lives are not continuously dramatic, it is harder to place real people in a story. But the mysteries are giving me new challenges. I have to decide on a crime, and work toward its solution, which is entertaining.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Give the stories meaning and make what happens consequential. I keep reading stories in which everything that happens is meaningless and has no impact, which makes a weak story. If it's a murder mystery, remember that death is consequential. People grieve. Families are upset. There are consequences in law, and upon society. I come across murder mysteries where no one cares, there are no funerals, it doesn't seem to matter, all of which undermine the story.

Which mystery writer's work most influenced your own?

Actually, none. There are many mystery writers I enjoy, including Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Coel, but these didn't apply to 1940s. Milwaukee and the sort of cop story I had in mind, so I had to feel my way along on my own.

Thanks, Richard.

Thank you for including me in your thoughtful interviews.

You can visit Richard at his blog site: