Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Writing a Cozy Mystery

What, no detailed violence or bloodshed in my mystery—in this day of Mission Impossible XIV (or whatever number they’re up to) and CSI morgues in living color? And what about including a hint of romance rather than steamy, explicit sex scenes? Would anyone read it? Shades of Gray was made into a movie, for heaven’s sake.
I started writing my first mystery at a workshop. It was love at first write. Mysteries have always been one of my favorite genres. Agatha Christie, Lilian Jackson Braun, Nancy Pickard, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, Diane Mott Davidson, Carl Hiaasen, Tony Hillerman, and on and on. That there are sub-genres within the mystery genre didn’t give me pause. Until—people started telling me I needed to include sex scenes and gory details of the murders in my stories to appeal to today’s readers.
I struggled to include some gratuitous sex and violence in my otherwise strategy and clue-driven first mystery. It sounded unnecessary and even distracting. It was then I dug deeper into the varieties of mysteries. A revelation—I could write a cozy mystery, or a cozy. I looked back at my bookshelf. Sure enough, the definition of a cozy fit my most beloved mysteries.
Besides being G or PG rated, cozies often have an amateur sleuth, like Beth Stockwell, the protagonist in my Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series. Details about the sleuth’s profession or hobby become part of the story (newspaper reporter, baker, librarian, house builder, knitter, bookstore owner, etc.) Beth is a landlady with rental properties that become crime scenes. A cozy mystery takes place in an intimate village, town, or neighborhood that is visited throughout each story in a series. Readers learn to know the town as well as the characters. My stories take place in Brookside, a quaint neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri.
The converted Trolley Track Trail meanders through Brookside. The hiking/biking trail serves as a symbolic path Beth takes between her everyday home life and her dangerous investigating. Beth argues with herself internally while taking her daily walk, and she encounters different folks on the trail, both good and evil.
Pets. I can’t imagine Clive Cussler’s hero, Dirk Pitt, spending time with a cat. By no means all, but many, cozy mysteries include a cat or a dog as a character. The pets provide humorous interludes, willing listeners, and avenues for foreshadowing clues or danger to come. Sylvester, the Psycho Cat in my series, makes brief, but important, appearances in each book. Although he’s typical cat at all times, he is the catalyst for discovering the mysteries and some of the clues.
The structure of a cozy is essentially the same as any mystery—three acts with plot points, climax, and wrap-up. The challenge faced by the cozy writer, in my opinion, consists of creating characters, plot, and climax that are intriguing and exciting for today’s readers without depicting grisly murders and titillating sexual encounters in detail. That’s okay by me. I love my mysteries to be mysterious and suspenseful, not clinical.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Eat Your Way to Better Writing

Photo courtesy of dbreen, Pixabay          

            As I write this, I’m in the throes of a mid-morning slump and all I can think about is what I’m going to have for lunch. This is not to be confused with the mid-afternoon slump, during which all I can think about is taking a nap.

            I should also mention that I’m on a quest to take better care of myself, and so I’m counting every calorie I ingest using an app called MyFitnessPal (you can find it in the App Store on your smartphone). It’s amazing how logging all the food I eat in a day has made me far more mindful of everything I eat.

            With that being said, I’m in the mood to write about food, and in particular, healthy food that packs a nutritional punch. I’ve decided to share a few recipes I’ve found that are great in terms of providing lots of nutrients, helping me to feel full, and still staying within a reasonable calorie range. And they're delicious! Want to know the best part? With an emphasis on healthy food, I'm feeling more energetic (except in mid-afternoon) and that helps with the word count! So that's how I'm tying this post to writing. Maybe a stretch, but it's all I've got.

            Breakfast: this isn’t really a recipe, but more of a life-changing twist I tried on an everyday breakfast food.

            Do you eat oatmeal? How about steel-cut oatmeal? Steel-cut oatmeal takes longer to make than regular oatmeal, but it’s not labor-intensive and the results are well worth the thirty minutes it takes to simmer the cereal. Next question: what do you put on your oatmeal when you make it? If you’re like me, you add maple syrup or brown sugar and maybe a handful of raisins, in addition to a little milk or half-and-half.

            Here’s the life-changing twist: I swirled a quarter cup of skim milk and two teaspoons of butter into the cooked oatmeal and added salt and pepper, thereby making it a savory breakfast rather than a sweet one. Pow! I loved the nutty taste, the creamy texture, and the full feeling it gave me.

Photo courtesy of ponce_photography, Pixabay

I urge you to try something savory for breakfast—eggs are good, but venture out of your comfort zone a bit. It’s a great way to add some variety to your morning routine and you might just love it.

            Lunch: this is a great recipe for springtime because it features strawberries, which are in season right now. I adapted the recipe from The Pampered Chef.

Photo courtesy of szjeno09190, Pixabay

Strawberry-Spinach Salad

½ t. lemon zest
2 t. lemon juice
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. vegetable oil
1 t. poppy seeds

½ to 1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut in slices
4 c. fresh baby spinach leaves
½ pound strawberries, hulled and sliced
¼ c. sliced or slivered almonds, toasted

Combine all dressing ingredients. Whisk until combined.
Cut each cucumber slice in half. Combine all salad ingredients (except nuts) with dressing. Toss gently in a large salad bowl. Sprinkle with almonds.

Makes 10 1-cup servings.

            Dinner: I would eat soup every night of the week if my family didn’t protest so loudly, so my dinner repertoire is wide-ranging and attempts to please at least two people at every meal. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. I recall one meal, in particular, that left one child in tears, another gagging, and another flatly refusing to take even one bite (turns out she was the smart one). It was truly awful. I threw away the entire meal. We refer to the as the Thai Curry Soup Which Shall Not be Mentioned and as I recall, we ate chicken nuggets from the freezer that night instead.

            But not to worry, the Soup Which Shall Not be Mentioned is not what I’m going to share with you here. Instead, I’m going to share a recipe that I made recently and that received rave reviews from the whole family.

Pepper Steak

1 lb. sirloin tips, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 T. vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
1 t. salt
½ t. pepper
1 c. beef broth
1 can (appr. 15 ounces) stewed tomatoes
1 large green or red pepper, cut into slices
2 T. cornstarch
¼ c. cold water
2 T. soy sauce
Cooked egg noodles or your favorite mashed potatoes with the skins left on

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add meat and cook until browned (about 15 minutes). Add onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and beef broth. Cover and simmer (low heat) for 25 minutes.
Add tomatoes (with their juices) and peppers to mixture and simmer for 10 more minutes, covered.           
Combine corn starch, cold water, and soy sauce and whisk well. Stir into meat mixture. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Remove garlic before serving over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.
Serves 4 with leftovers.

Enjoy and happy spring!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Magic of Writing Contests

by Linda Thorne

Okay, I’m still inundated at my day job, but something happened that got me back to writing. No, not back to where I want to be, but back to spending hours at a time on my work-in-progress, A Promotion to Die For. Even though my job in human resources continues to deplete every iota of my energy, I’ve found a new way of relaxing. No more sleeping in on days off or staring uninterestingly at the TV. Instead, I take every available hour I have for writing and revising my unpublished novel.

What happened?

The good advice I’ve been getting from my author friends has been building up. I’ve listened, but it still wasn’t enough to get me going. Then an e-mail reminder hit my inbox notifying me of an upcoming deadline for a contest I'd entered in the past, one for unpublished novels. I didn’t want to enter and I didn’t think I had the time, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I avoided it for days then suddenly felt compelled to submit. I spent hours getting my submission ready and made their April 1st deadline.

I’d forgotten the power writing contests always had over me. For years I’d entered the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition with my first book. This contest is free for those mystery writers who have not yet published a novel. Their judges read your entire book. That’s an opportunity you don’t often get. Sometimes I think the motivation to win this contest was what drove me to get the finished product I needed to find a publisher. There is no second or third place winner in this competition only first place, in the finals, or out of luck. I never won the contest, but for two consecutive years I was among the finalists.

I also recommend: The Sandy Writing Contest, The PNWA Literary Contest, and The Colorado Gold Writing Contest.
Contests are motivational because there is a shorter-term possibility of getting something in return. You have a good reason to polish your submission. There’s the hope of a win of some sort. You’re given a deadline, so you meet it instead of dallying around. Then there's the invaluable feedback many writing contests offer.

So, I’m back to writing. I may be limited in time by my day job, but at least I’m back. My advice to new writers and those with writers block is try a contest. It’s always worked for me.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing Outdoors... Or not

After a long winter stuck indoors a lot of authors I know are a little stir crazy. Plenty of them want to go outside and write. Personally the closest to writing outdoors that I like is going to a coffee shop.

But, if you feel called to the great outdoors here is an article with tips on creating an outdoor work space, most important, how to read your computer screen in the sunshine! 

It's an older article, but the home made sunshade can't be beat! 

And remember, pen and paper work everywhere!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting a discussion during my first ever Romance Slam Jam book event in Los Angeles, which was an amazing experience. I even took on 2 new mentees, which I'm so excited about. I decided to share my discussion outline with my Novel Spaces family, as having a mentor and being a mentee can be very rewarding. Enjoy! I hope you find it helpful.

1. Mentors can provide a path of guidance or model of success as your first step toward your goal, and give you a heads-up on what to expect down a road, by someone who’s “been there – done that” and walked the walk - kind of a mentor GPS. Also, it’s sometimes better to know what not to do, than what to do.

2. A mentor will offer specific tips and advice that pave the way. Yet, it is VERY important to do the work and research on your own.

3. Advice from a mentor can be helpful in your decision to even embark upon your journey. You may decide that what lies ahead is not for you, or you’ll find that you’re excited by the challenge, and move forward.

4. Mentors can help build your confidence with encouragement and support, and possibly see more in you than you see in yourself, pushing you to challenge yourself and to use your talents to succeed. Pep talks are motivating. The connection provides accountability.

5. Having someone who will look out for you and be available as a resource, seeing you progress, will be a reminder that you’re achieving, being proactive, and walking your own walk.

6. Being a mentee will allow the mentor to take pride in being able to give. There are blessings in receiving, but giving can be a gift, and to block that opportunity for someone to give of their time and knowledge, can block their blessings. Mentoring is not a one-way street.

7. There will be choppy waters. Mentors can sometimes help you navigate through, by preparing you to survive the tough times.

8. Nothing good is ever accomplished alone. We are not meant to be alone, nor do it alone, as no man or woman is an island. Connection and support are vital for health and well-being. It takes a village. It takes a team.

9. Knowing the story of your mentor’s strength and endurance will better prepare you toward your end game.

10. The process of being a mentee will prepare you to be a mentor to someone else, paying it forward, also being a blessing! It’s the circle of life.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lessons from a coconut palm

A coconut palm, an almond tree and a flamboyant tree stood in the gentle breeze of a Caribbean island. Suddenly the winds sprang up and a hurricane blew through. The coconut tree was tossed to and fro, the almond tree and the flamboyant tree stood firm. At the end of the storm, the almond tree with its strong trunk broke in two, the flamboyant that stood strong and proud was uprooted. The only tall tree remained untouched was the coconut tree. A small grape bush looked up at the coconut tree and asked, “Mr. Coco, the almond tree had a mighty trunk, three times as strong as you, the flamboyant tree had roots that spread for yards around, how is it that they broke in the wind and you with your flimsy trunk and narrow roots withstood the storm?”

The coconut tree smiled and said to the grape, “You see, I’m thin and flexible and my roots run deep. When the wind blows from the north, I dance to the south, when it comes from the west, I dance to the east. I bend and bow in the direction of the wind. But the almond tree tried to stop the wind with his trunk and resisted mightily, and the flamboyant, despite its widespread roots is not deeply grounded.  In short, I’m firm but flexible. That is the secret of my strength.”

That is the way our schedules should be— firm and flexible like a coconut tree. Last September after working part time and writing for some time I got a fulltime position with a forty minute commute. It was a nightmare in the beginning because it upset my routine.  I struggled to get organized, juggling three kids, their schools, their afterschool activities, homework, my writing and my newfound stress.  By the end of the semester I had it down. I was like a pro juggling my schedule, the kids and home commitments. I even built an exercise routine in all that chaos.

Then just when I thought I had it all down, spring semester began and my schedule changed. Bummer! Not only my schedule changed, but my kids took up different sports, and after school activities. Now I had to reorganize once again.  So what did I do? I learned from the coconut palm: be firm but flexible.
Here are a few ways I try to be firm but flexible in my organization.

1. Try not to over schedule
I know. This is easier said than done. There is so much to do and so little time to do it. We schedule every minute of our time and when things change as they always do there’s no wriggle room to rearrange our schedules. Overscheduling is the way we try to control the situation around us. The coconut palm doesn’t try to control or brace itself against the winds around it. It just goes with the flow.

2. Don’t hang your hat where your hand can’t reach
That is to say, don’t set your expectations too high. I have historically been (and still am) very disorganized. When I first tried to organize, I made a to do list. The to do list had so many things that I wanted to accomplish in one day it was impossible to fulfill. I found myself constantly feeling disappointment for not accomplishing my goals. Now, I set just a few realistic things that I want to accomplish.

3. Prioritize
There is only 24 hours in a day. So I choose some “must do”, some “desire to do” and some “will do when I get to it.” I give priority to the must do before anything else. The others can wait if the time isn’t there. If I get all the essentials out of the way, I can add things that from the previous day that I did not accomplish.

4. Use the 14th and 15th letters of the alphabet more often
Yes, sometimes you simply should say no to new tasks that are not a priority in your life. Many times we look at accepting new tasks as a new opportunity, but if your schedule is too packed, you just have to decline new commitments.

5. Put time for you in our schedule
This is so much needed especially for women. We take care of the needs of everybody around us and we leave ourselves for last. As we are pulled here and there, we need to set aside time to relax and reflect and do the things we love otherwise we lose ourselves and our sanity. If we make time for ourselves we'll ground ourselves, laying down deep roots like the coconut tree.

 6. Cut your losses
To be flexible, we must be able to move with the flow, like the coconut tree. Sometimes that means we have to recognize when what we’re doing is futile and walk away.

7. Don’t resist change, embrace it
The coconut tree epitomizes this philosophy. Change will come. If we resist it and hold on to our dinosaur ways, we will get left behind. Ask all those authors who refused to make their books available in ebook format in the early digital days. Make your schedule flexible enough to allow unscheduled changes.

These are the lessons I've learned from the coconut palm. If you're deeply grounded and firm but flexible you will survive the winds of change, the winds of life.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Guest author Sorchia DuBois: In Defense of First Person

Sorchia DuBois
Lately, I’ve heard a number of people express an abiding prejudice against any book written in first person. They say they will toss a book aside as soon as the evil “I” signals a first person narrator.

Since I make use of first person POV, I am naturally concerned that one of my babies might be disqualified straight out of the gate. Tell me—from whence does this hatred spring?

Don’t get me wrong, no POV is generally superior to another, as far as I can tell. Sometimes that story has to be gotten straight from the horse’s mouth—first person. Sometimes the story comes to you by a roundabout way—third person. Sometimes you need to know many things at once to really get the story—omniscient. It all depends.

So let me explain why I sometimes use first person.

First person is a challenge. To those who say first person is easy, I say “Pah!” I have to stay in one person’s head and tell her story as only she sees it. I can’t fall back on an omniscient source to clear up bits of the plot or to find out what’s happening in another part of town. And I have to make the story as interesting to readers as it is to the protagonist.

Let’s not even mention the technical bits like how do you get a physical description of your first person narrator without sounding stupid or without resorting to the old “ I walked past a mirror and . . .?” And how do you avoid starting every sentence with “I” or filling your prose with “me” and “my”? How much reflection is too much? How do you keep the plot moving when things happen off-stage?

First person is more immediate. I can show the action as she experiences the plot twists I gleefully toss at her.  I use present tense sometimes and that increases the immediacy but creates another monkey puzzle of how to avoid the pitfalls of tense along with the pitfalls of first person.

First person is more intimate. My character—like any human—processes the things that happen to her. She reflects and talks to herself. This presents another challenge because the temptation is to constantly tell her thoughts instead of show them. In a deep first person POV, I can let her work through her problems and illustrate her true nature.

First person doesn’t have to be reliable. Oh, the tricksy tales we tell ourselves to rationalize our own actions. As a teacher, I loved teaching about Edgar Alan Poe and his unreliable first person narrators. You know the guy--the narrator who tells us how sane and normal he is while relating his deviant behavior. People often lie to themselves just as they lie to others and I want my characters to do the same. A first person narrator is, after all, a person telling a story to a room full of other people.

Sometimes that story has to be gotten straight from the horse’s mouth—first person. Sometimes the story comes to you by a roundabout way—third person. Sometimes you need to know many things at once to really get the story—omniscient. It all depends.

A great many classic novels make use of first person. To name only a few:

To Kill a Mockingbird
Gulliver’s Travels
Huck Finn
Catcher in the Rye
The Invisible Man

More modern uses of a first person narrator achieved best seller status. A few of these:

The Lovely Bones
The Stephanie Plum books

I won’t change my first person stripes just yet though I don’t put myself in league with any of these authors. Still, I want to know what I can do to lure first person POV haters to give this kind of narrator another chance.

As a matter of fact, I’m presenting a brand new short story in first person for a blog challenge during the April. If you are up for it, follow me at www.sorchiadubois.com to receive every episode of this witchy little tale. Or grab my latest book, Zoraida Grey and the Family Stones. Tell me what you think of my brand of first person narrator.