Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Favorite Books of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, I’d like to use my Novel Spaces spot this month to take a look back at some of my favorite titles from the past year. The books are listed in alphabetical order by author and I’ve included the text of the review I wrote for each book.

This is one of the few books I've read recently that has held my interest long enough for me to stay up past midnight turning pages. I was entranced by the descriptions of what life was like in 17th century England, and the author does a superb job of setting up the events of the story against the events of that time in history.

From the Plague to the Great Fire of London, from the goings-on above-stairs to the goings-on below stairs, from the realistic setting to the real-life crimes being committed during that time, I learned an incredible amount about the Regency period. I loved the characters, especially the magistrate (the head of the household in the story), Lucy (the main character), and the other servants. I was pretty sure I knew the culprit behind the murder at Rosamund's Gate several times during the story, and the author surprised me at the end with a fabulous twist I didn't see coming--that's the measure of a great book, as far as I'm concerned. Surprisingly, the only character I couldn't get a handle on was Adam--his quicksilver reactions to the events in the plot are the only thing keeping me from giving this book five stars. In fact, I wish I could give 4.5 stars.

I have read this book with rapt interest and though I haven't had a chance to visit a labyrinth yet, I have a feeling the advice and recommendations given in the book will turn out to be life-changing. The author takes a subject I've seen referred to as "New Age hype" and turns it into something spiritual and beautiful and wholly subjective. I'm eager to learn more about labyrinths after reading this book.

The only thing that could have made me stop reading this book through to the end would have been the death of my Kindle. Once I started reading, the fast-paced plot, the fascinating backstories of the characters, and the way Patricia Gligor deftly intertwined their lives made the book impossible yo put down. My flower beds may have suffered because I spent an entire Saturday afternoon reading this book, but I'm glad I did it. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and with that character's thoughts come all the baggage that character carries into the story. I was sure I knew who the culprit was, but I turned out to be wrong, and that's my favorite thing about reading mysteries.

Whenever Hazel Rose gets involved, I want to read about it. Maggie King has done a fabulous job with Murder at the Moonshine Inn. From the twists and turns to the surprise ending (the clues were there all along), this book was a fun read with plenty to keep readers on their toes and turning pages. I'm looking forward to the next installment of the Hazel Rose stories.

I loved every single page of this book and I'm going to get Heroes and Hooligans just as soon as I finish writing this review.

The characters were developed with mastery, the plot never stopped moving, and there are enough laugh-out-loud Southern sayings to ingeniously lighten the mood of this based-on-a-real-event mystery.

The characters are like family, so I hope to meet them again when I visit Goose Pimple Junction--soon.

I have not yet reviewed this book because I’m still in the process of wrapping my mind around everything it says, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in better eating and improved gut health.

This is another book I haven’t reviewed yet, but I will. I’ve become more and more interested in the Mediterranean diet and this book is a great introduction to some delicious, easy recipes. It’s because of this book that I tried Haloumi cheese for the first time and I LOVE it.

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

From the pirates of centuries ago to the modern-day struggles of the lowcountry shrimping industry, Bob Spearman weaves a tale of greed, fear, and impossible choices set against the hauntingly beautiful coast of South Carolina.

The Dodd family has been a fixture of the lowcountry shrimping community for generations. Harlin, the current captain of the Dodd business, is trying to provide for his family, something that's getting harder and harder to do with each passing year. When the economic stresses of Harlin's day-to-day work combine with his desire to give some financial help to the family of a long-time employee, his daughter's drive to become part of the business, and his son's burgeoning career as a baseball wunderkind, he finds himself entangled in a situation that could prove to be either the family's salvation or its undoing.

This was a well-paced story that resonated with real-life struggles, family dynamics, and crackling suspense. It asks the reader to do some hard thinking about what he or she might do if placed in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.

I've had this book on my Kindle, queued up on my TBR, for months. And now that I've read it, I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Peopled with a long list of possible suspects, backstory galore, thrilling suspense, and even some romance, this story kept me intrigued from the first page to the last. The characters were well-drawn, the pacing was excellent, and the setting was fascinating. I highly recommend Descent and I'm looking forward to Blaze, the second book in the Stone Mountain series.

The Right Wrong Man hooked me from the very first paragraph and didn't let go until the very last. It's full of twists and turns I didn't see coming, all intricately laid out and presented brilliantly. I was never confused, despite the complexity of the plot, which says a lot about the author's ability to write clearly and with precision. Pamela Wight has a way of putting the reader right in the middle of the action, of making the reader feel all the emotions the characters are feeling. I am so eager to read her next book!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Do You Let Your Characters Swear?

Do your characters swear? Do they swear too much? Not enough? Should they swear at all?

At the end of January I’m presenting a seminar on dialog and I tackle the question of profanity. It brings to mind a discussion I had with my editor (I’ll call her Nancy) about Murder at the Book Group, #1 in my Hazel Rose Book Group series.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. It's not that I had a lot of them, but I was trying for authentic dialog—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with salty words. For example, my character Jeanette Thacker is loosely based on a former co-worker who never felt the need to censor her speech. Not a word of it.   

But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers frown on swearing. And then there was all the sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that the main character, Hazel Rose, is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark and edgy cozy, what's sometimes called a traditional mystery. The sex I write about occurs off stage and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I did want to cultivate loyal  readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language (I've since found out that the same is true of many of my fellow authors). On the other hand, some wonder why a reader who can't get enough dead bodies on the page would be so appalled by cussing.   

I trusted Nancy’s expertise and instincts. With her help my story was blossoming. And so I ditched the cursing and kept the sex. Not wanting to dilute my more colorful characters, I put my creative side to work and came up with euphemisms (including the “okay” swear words) and other tricky ways to simulate swearing. I was satisfied with the results.

If the real Jeanette Thacker reads my tome and recognizes herself I think she’d be pleased but would probably wonder why she’s using words like “frigging” (that's an okay word).

Mystery author Naomi Hirahara is so skilled at suggesting swearing that you know the exact word she’s not using. Another mystery author, F.M. Meredith, has this to say about the lack of salty language in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series: “Oh, the characters do cuss, I just don’t quote them.”

I had a different editor for my second book, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, and he was more lenient. I remembered my readers, but couldn't resist sprinkling a very mild expletive—or three—into the dialogue. So far no one’s objected.

Back to my dialog presentation. This is how I answer the question “To swear or not to swear?”:
  • Know your reader and your genre. Cursing and four-letter words are more acceptable in a thriller than in a romance or a cozy mystery
  • Refrain from profanity in narrative, but an occasional expletive in dialog is acceptable (depending, of course, on genre)
  • Realize that profanity is more noticeable in a novel than in real-life conversation, so limit its use in your writing
  • Use your best judgment
If you’ll be in the Richmond, Virginia area on January 27, 2018, sign up for the Agile
Writers Conference

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, Brit style

I'm not going to talk about books, or characters, or editing this month. Well not much anyway. I'm just going to wish you a very Merry Christmas and have a bit of fun with baking. So please keep reading.

In the run up to Christmas there’s always so much to do and so little time. In our household, we don’t put up any Christmas decorations until after the tenth of December, our son’s birthday. Then boxes are dragged from the garage, shelves are laden with festive nick-nacks, and we buy the largest tree possible on which to hang all the baubles and seasonal decorations we have collected over the years. Our doors are dotted in Blu Tac and plastered with Christmas cards, and cupboards gradually get full-to-overloaded with treats.

Having researched a few of the differences between American and British Christmas traditions, I thought I’d share a few things with you here.

Whilst I wouldn’t advocate consuming alcohol too early in the day, at Christmas we English like to have a glass of champagne, or something sparkling, on Christmas morning. Sometimes we add orange juice to make a Buck’s Fizz—I think you call it a Mimosa, although our Buck’s Fizz has more champagne than juice. Personally I like to drink my orange juice neat. Just like my champagne J.

Of course, we don’t just drink in the morning. We maintain a steady intake during the day. In my case, it improves my cooking. At least I think there is a correlation between everyone enjoying my food, and consuming more alcohol.

Among treats such as chocolate Santas—whom we call Father Christmas by the way—marzipan fruits, chocolate liquers and stollen cake, there is a very British tradition of eating mince pies at Christmas time. The majority are consumed during the run up to Christmas. By the twenty-fifth, we’ve usually had our fill, and they are pushed aside by the great Christmas pudding, flooded with rum, wine and stout, and served with brandy cream.

But getting back to the mince pies. It’s come to my attention that you don’t have them on your side of the pond. So I thought I’d share an old family recipe. Actually, it’s not my family, but it does date back to 1989. At least that’s the date of my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course.

So if you love your baking and want to rebel against American tradition and provide your loved ones with a treat, here’s what you do:

Buy the Ingredients:
For the filling
For the Pastry
For the top
1lb of cooking apples, chopped
12 oz plain flour
8 oz shredded suet
3 oz lard
Icing sugar
12 oz raisins
3 oz butter

8 oz sultanas
A pinch of salt

8 oz currants
Cold water, to mix

8 oz mixed peel, chopped

12 oz soft dark brown sugar

Grated rind & juice of 2 oranges

Grated rind & juice of 2 lemons

2 oz almonds cut into slivers

4 teaspoons mixed spice

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ a nutmeg, grated

6 tablespoons brandy

Make the filling – probably best to do this first.
As an aside, and just in case you didn’t know, the filling is called mincemeat but there is no meat involved. It’s all sweet and great for vegetarians.
Step 1 - Just mix them all together, holding back the brandy—but don’t drink it. Or if you are tempted by the bottle, make sure you leave at least 6 tablespoons. Otherwise all your mince pies will be ruined.
Step 2 - Cover with a cloth and leave for 12 hours. During this time you might be able to complete the next chapter of your book. It might even read better if you have started on the brandy.
Step 3 - After twelve hours loosely cover it with foil and place in cool oven gas ¼ , 225F, 120C for 3 hours. This can give you time to edit that chapter. Unless you’ve had too much from the bottle during step 1, in which case best to sleep it off during this waiting period.
Step - 4 Let it go cold. You may need someone else to help check it has gone cold if you didn’t stop drinking the brandy at step 3.
Step 5 – Stir in the brandy
Now it’s ready. I hope.
Please note. This makes 6 lb of mincemeat. You will need 1 ½ lb to make 3 dozen mince pies. You can freeze the rest, something to look forward to next year, without all the hassle!

Making the mince pies
First - pre heat oven to gas 6, 400F or 200C
Now make the pastry and allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Roll half out, about 1/8 inch thick, & cut into 3 dozen rounds of 3 inches each. Do the same with the other half, only this time make the rounds 2 ½ inches. This provides a top and a bottom.

Now grease the patty tins and line them with the large rounds. Fill with the mincemeat—not too much, just to the level of the edges of the pastry.
Dampen the edges of the smaller rounds with the water and press them lightly into position to form lids, sealing the edges. Brush with milk and make ~ 3 snips in the top.

Bake near top of oven for 25 – 30 minutes until they are a light golden brown. Leave to cool and sprinkle with icing sugar. Enjoy.

At this point I should say "Here's one I prepared earlier." But I have to confess, I have never made a mince pie in my life. I guess there's time yet...

I wish you all and your families A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lots of Christmases Past - Lots of Backstory

by Linda Thorne

Why does it seem Christmas gets here quicker every single year? There were a whole lot of years when my step children were children. Those were the greatest Christmases of all and I remember them so well. We lived in Denver then, so those were often white Christmases. The last white Christmas we had in Nashville was in 2010. Our children are grown now with children of their own and all live in different states. This year it will be Mo and Abby (above) and my husband and I again and the memories of Christmases past or what writers call backstory.

Speaking of that, I'd like to write a post saying my second book in the series is polished and ready to be turned over to my publisher. I'm afraid that's not the case. Right now my biggest struggle is backstory. The main plot is built around a 30-year-old cold case with my lead character, at the age of 20, being the intended victim. Someone else was murdered in her stead. I love the story line, but weaving in an inciting incident that happened 30 years earlier is not only difficult, but a science. A friend of mine read much of the book and gave me suggestions and then warned me to tread carefully in finding the right places to drop in the backstory. I'm so thankful she's willing to look at it again once I've struggled through this process.

Does anyone else find Christmas is here before you know it?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

2017 - My Publishing Year in Review

It's still a shock to me, but 2017 has been my best publishing year to date. No, I'm not making the big bucks, but I'm making enough to make writing and publishing worth the countless hours of time and effort I've put in since 1997 when I completed the first draft of my first novel.

That first novel did not see the light until 2008; that was no fault of the book but of the author who shelved it for years before dusting it off in 2005, revising, acquiring agent representation in 2006 and a publisher in 2007. Returns on that book, on which I made a paltry 4% of retail per my contract, were minimal.

In 2013 or thereabouts I decided to go rogue and started publishing novels, novellas and shorts, in several genres and using different pen names, on the KDP indie platform. Sales were slow and inconsistent, and as the years passed I became more and more disillusioned with Amazon's policies. At the end of 2015 I took all my titles out of Amazon's Select program and went wide in January 2016, selling on B&N, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play and others.

Going wide was the BEST decision I ever made. From the very first month, January 2016, my royalties began to climb and by March I began receiving cheques like clockwork. It was just coffee money, but it was the first time I was getting paid every single month for my writing. One year later, in January 2017, two of my titles suddenly took off on iBooks and my monthly royalties increased by roughly 1000%. Those monthly payments cover a few of my bills, including groceries. I am still in shock.

I'm an optimist, disgustingly so according to one of my friends, and as 2018 draws near I have solid grounds for that cheerful outlook. I'm hoping to increase my royalties by putting more titles in the stores--or, at the very least, maintain my current momentum. Publishing is a very unpredictable business, but barring major debacles, 2018 is beckoning with a smile.

What has publishing been like for you in 2017?

Monday, November 27, 2017

'Tis the Season

Every year about this time I post a blog on the topic of giving, and since my personal blog is already booked up (no pun intended) for the next couple weeks, I thought I’d share the giving post here.

My giving post generally focuses on specific charities, but this year I’m including a word of caution, too. We’ve all gotten those phone calls asking for money for various deserving charities (and if you haven’t gotten those phone calls, please PM me and spill your secret), but it’s important to note that the companies that are hired to make those calls get paid with a significant percentage of the money they bring in.

If you want your chosen charity to get the most bang for your buck, give directly to the charity by calling or visiting its website. A much higher percentage of your donation will, in most cases, go directly toward helping people, animals, etc.

With that out of the way, I’d like to introduce you to Charity Navigator. If you’re not familiar with this website, it’s a place where people can go to get some important particulars about the charities they’re considering, such as transparency, accountability, and financial health. Charity Navigator rates charities based on these criteria and shares its results with donors in ways that are easy to understand.

Charity Navigator has a number of ways to help donors choose charities. A donor can search for a particular charity by name, of course, but he or she can also search for charities with perfect scores, trending charities, big and small charities, charities to watch, and the list goes on and on. The site also includes tips for donors as well as a blog with some helpful and informative information about giving.

Click here to visit Charity Navigator and check it out for yourself.

Interested in what charities I’m considering this year? Here they are:

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Cure Alzheimer’s Fund

Rainforest Trust

Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Jersey

Make-A-Wish Foundation of Hawaii

Books for Africa

These are just a few of the literally thousands of charities to choose from, and sorting through them to find the right ones for you is a time-consuming job. Charity Navigator does most of the work for donors. I urge you to check out the website and give during this holiday season.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Instagram: Not Just for Millennials

“Instagram is a cross between Pinterest and Twitter,” says Sonja Yoerg, author of contemporary fiction and a fan of Instagram. “Instagram shares Pinterest’s image-sharing feature and Twitter’s use of hashtags for categorizing and tracking topics.”   
Have you tried Instagram? No? Read on. Even if you’re a veteran, read on and share your tips and best practices.

I had long known about this mobile photo-sharing app that lets users edit and upload photos and short videos. I also knew that the typical user was between 15 and 35. Since my demographic skews older, I felt no need to add this particular social media service to my platform—and my time. But two years ago my curiosity won out and I signed up. I intended to simply lurk and see what was what. Within five minutes I had two followers. So I caved and posted a photo. I’m still there, posting, following, being followed.

As for the younger folks … well, Instagram’s no longer just for the Millennials. I’m not sure if they’re leaving in droves (my college-aged niece is still active) but the older folks are arriving in droves.

What’s to like about Instagram?
It’s fun and it doesn’t take a lot of time. Well, it can take a lot of time.

There’s no limit on post length (if there is, I haven’t reached it). 

Authors can engage with reviewers and bloggers. I must admit that I haven’t done this yet, but it’s an attractive option. At the very least, they may post your book cover.

Sonja Yoerg offers book giveaways on Instagram. For a chance to win, she asks interested readers to follow her and leave a comment. For some giveaways she directs readers to her Facebook page. She seems to do very well with this promotional gambit.

What’s not to like about Instagram?
A few things. While you can create live links in your profile, you can’t in your posts. Not a huge problem, but inconvenient.

Then you have to contend with those danged algorithms. Remember when Facebook and Twitter had chronological timelines before switching to an algorithm that shows you the “top stories”—meaning what the social media gods think are top stories. Last year, Instagram followed suit.

But while Facebook and Twitter give you the ability to restore the date/time order of your timeline postings, Instagram has yet to extend that courtesy. Hopefully they will, and soon. After all, Facebook owns them.

What to post
Post pictures of anything and everything: travel, movies, pets, fall foliage, snow, spring blossoms, and, no surprise, food!; promote your writing events, books (yours and others), and blogs; send holiday greetings with a season-appropriate image.    

Many use a theme in their postings, along the lines of sunsets, trees, babies, pets, etc. This approach is fine, but use caution—seeing Florida sunrises day after day gets old fast. 

Use hashtags to reach a wider audience and attract potential followers. But don’t go overboard with the hashtags. It’s easy to do because there are so many of them and it’s such fun to go wild after Twitter’s restrictions on post length. But hashtag mania will make your postings look spammy. I’ve been cutting back on mine.

Here are my cats, Morris and Olive, celebrating National Cat Day on Instagram:   

It seems that my image is too large. No problem, you get the idea. When I post pictures of my two scamps, I typically use these hashtags: #catsofinstagram, #cats, #norwegianforestcat, #manxcat, #oliveannking, #morristhecat. Maybe too many, but I can't resist! On Saturdays, I use the #caturday tag.

Writers have an extensive selection of hashtags: #authorsofinstagram, #bookstagram, #writersofinstagram, #writersofvirginia (pick a state), and #mysteries are just a few. Plus you can create your own, just like in Twitter.   

So give Instagram a try. Follow me at authormaggieking. And, like I said in the beginning, old hands are welcome to weigh in with your experience and advice on how to make Instagram a fun and rewarding part of a social media platform. 

Here's more information on Instagram.