Behind the Books of a New Series

Saturday, December 07, 2019
Old Nantasket Books

Twenty years ago, I was dating a man who lived in Hull, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston. I was living in New York at the time, and while most weekends he traveled down to meet me, on occasion I also went to Massachusetts to visit him.

Joshua James

The town has a fascinating history. Fort Revere, formerly Fort Independence, is a Revolutionary War military installation and historic landmark that shows how far back that history goes. Off its coast is Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in America and still functioning as a lighthouse. Hull also had a lifesaving station, now a museum, whose commander was the famous Joshua James.


Most interesting to me was that Hull was the playground of the rich before the invention of the automobile enabled people to travel to Cape Cod for a summer weekend. You can still see one of the vacation homes where John F. Kennedy spent summers in his childhood in Hull. Referred to as the Honey Fitz Mansion, it was built by John Francis Fitzgerald, two-time mayor of Boston and JFK’s grandfather. Across the street is the children’s playhouse, which is larger than many family homes today.


Eventually, because of my relationship and the need to find a new job, I moved to the South Shore of Massachusetts, and, for one dream year, to Hull itself. I’d never lived in a small town before, certainly never in one with pre-revolutionary history, and definitely not a summer town, which every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day transformed itself into something very different from what it was in winter. I was fascinated with everything about the town. Including those years during the Gilded Age when it was a microcosm of the excess and political corruption present in more well-known locations.

When I discovered there had been a book about Hull’s history, particularly its infamous history, called “Old Nantasket,” I had to read it. I spent a long time trying to track down a copy. This was before the days of Amazon and online book shopping, so it was a more difficult task than you’d think. The book was out of print, and apparently had had a limited print run when it was published, so copies were rare. I was thrilled to finally find a copy (it might have been at someone’s yard sale), despite the cover being wrinkled and coffee-stained.

The book didn’t disappoint. It’s a folksy memoir written by a doctor who not only lived through the town’s most notorious age, but was also a part of it. I often wondered what it would be like to have lived during those times, and of course, imagined writing about them in a novel. But I wasn’t writing novels then, and my daily reminders of what Hull had once been went away and faded from my mind when I moved to Arizona.

This year, as I found myself thinking about starting a new mystery series, I began to consider writing a historical mystery. In writing the African Violet Club Mysteries, I discovered that it was becoming more difficult to kill people, particularly as far as poisons were concerned. All of Agatha Christie’s old reliables—strychnine, cyanide, arsenic—have long since become illegal to use in commercial products. The invention of the cell phone has also made plotting more difficult, since help for an amateur sleuth is only a pocket away. There are only so many times you can have the battery run down or place your sleuth in a location where there’s no cell service. Writing a mystery fifty or a hundred years in the past got rid of those problems. (Of course, it added new ones, but I’ll talk about that another time.)

That was when I thought about that whole shelf of books I had on early Massachusetts and, of course, “Old Nantasket.” I’d even managed to acquire a new copy of the 2004 reprint edition (the one on the right in the photo at the top of this blog) in the meantime. Yes! Hull and “the Old Ring” would make a perfect backdrop for a new mystery series. And that’s what I’ve been working on most of 2019.

I didn’t want to say too much about it. After all, I wasn’t sure my idea would work out until I’d written a book that used it. I also thought historical mystery would be far enough out of my wheelhouse that I should release those books under a pen name. I’m about 2,000 words away from completing the first—or second—in the series and it’s definitely working out. I finished an earlier book, which I’m thinking of as a prequel to introduce readers to this series, but might be book one. I’ll decide in the next month or two. And I’m not going to use that pen name. As I wrote the books, I noticed that despite being a new sub-genre, they’re still written in my voice. And they’re not so far from cozies as I thought they might be.

I’m really excited about this new series. I’m hoping to release the first book in February of 2020. I’ll have more news about it next month. Meanwhile, happy reading!

Photo Credits:
Books: Taken by me this morning.
Joshua James: By uncertain - U.S. Coast Guard historian's office website, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10448095
Postcard:By Unknown - postcard, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7970183

Habits

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I’ve just finished “Lifelong Writing Habit” by Chris Fox. Chris has written a number of writing books in addition to his prolific production of fiction, mostly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. This craft book focuses on learning to use habits to become more productive.

As we all know, habits are ingrained behaviors we do without thinking much about them. Mine include getting up when the cats won’t let me sleep any longer, feeding said cats, and putting on the coffee. The biggest decision I have to make in my still-sleepy brain is which can of cat food to feed them. My cats are finicky (is there any other kind?), kind of like two-year-olds in that a favorite food becomes something they don’t like at all without any warning. So I try to make sure to feed them a variety with the hope that they won’t tire of any particular one just when I’ve laid in a two-months supply.

But back to habits.

Up until recently, the next thing I did was turn on my computer, check my sales so far this month, then get sucked into the vortex of Facebook. It’s something to do while I drink that first cup of coffee, and I tell myself that it’s productive because I catch up on the latest advertising techniques and publishing news and all that. Except that I generally also get lost in cat videos and outrage. Several hours later, I’ve run out of new Facebook postings and get up out of my chair. Reading “Lifelong Writing Habit” has convinced me to abandon that habit, no matter how strong the siren call of it is, and start my day differently so I will be writing before I’ve exhausted myself with social media drama.

Because all those angry postings are drama and drama is exhausting. During the World Series, the announcers talked a lot about “stress pitches.” It takes a lot more out of a pitcher to face a batter when the bases are loaded with no one out than when there are two outs and the bases are empty. Similarly, if the score is 10-to-1 in your favor, it’s easy to face the next batter. If it’s 10-to-1 against, there’s more stress. So while in recent years, it’s been all about the pitch count to determine how long a pitcher can stay in the game, the announcers were pointing out that if most of those pitches were stress pitches, keeping a pitcher in for one hundred of them was likely to result in disaster.

I’ll get back to that in a bit.

At the end of “Lifelong Writing Habit,” Chris suggests that you immediately start the next craft book you want to read. It’s one of the ways you become a better writer. I have a ton of those, including ones I read before I was ready for the information they contain that I want to re-read. I have several books by Lawrence Block, many of which are compilations of the monthly columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest. So I opened one of those this morning, “The Liar’s Bible: A Good Book for Fiction Writers.” I think Block put them on sale not too long ago, so I picked up several of them.
I’m not sure whether it was coincidence or serendipity, but when I started reading the next article from that book (I’d started it earlier), I ran across this passage concerning Georges Simenon, a prolific mystery writer of the past:

There, locked in a hotel room, Simenon would work 12 or 14 hours a day until, in 11 or 12 days’ time, his book was finished. After each day’s stint at the typewriter, he would compulsively follow whatever routine he had established on the first day, ambling through town according to precisely the same route, buying his tobacco at the same kiosk, ordering the same meal at the same restaurant, doing all this presumably to eliminate the need to make decisions and to maintain the same turn of mind, insofar as possible, throughout the writing of the novel.

Habits again.

This may sound strange, but the phrase that stood out to me was “ordering the same meal at the same restaurant” because today I’m going to make Simply Filling Cabbage and White Bean Soup in my slow cooker. I started making this on a regular basis even before I joined Weight Watchers because it’s low calorie, high fiber, and easy. I made it even easier by using cole slaw mix instead of slicing up my own cabbage and carrots. I throw the ingredients in my slow cooker in the morning, let them cook all day, and have a delicious and filling soup for dinner. The recipe makes from six to eight portions, so I freeze individual containers to take out over the next couple of weeks for dinner.

I have another favorite slow cooker meal, Salsa Chicken. This one is even easier. You put chicken breasts in the slow cooker, sprinkle with taco seasoning, add a jar of salsa and a can of diced tomatoes and start that cooking.

I’ve felt slightly guilty about the routine of eating the same meals every day. One day cabbage soup, the next day salsa chicken until it’s gone and I make another pot. Seeing that Georges Simenon did something similar got rid of that guilt.

The truth is, making decisions is also tiring. I’ve written a blog post on decision fatigue before. Every decision you make takes a little bit of energy. The more decisions, the more you drain your energy. If you can eliminate some decisions, particularly for simple things, you have more energy left for the big things, like writing. And more time, because you’re not standing at the open refrigerator door inventorying ingredients or paging through recipe books looking for something to cook for dinner.
NaNoWriMo is also about habits. With a deadline and a word count goal for every day in the month of November, it forces you to form the habit of writing, generally before you do anything else. Which is why I have to stop dithering on this blog post and, as Chris Fox says, get back to the writing.

NaNoWriMo

Friday, November 01, 2019
Woman typing on a laptop

Today it begins!

What’s that you ask? Well, other than the start of the month of November, it is also the start of National Novel Writing Month, fondly known as NaNoWriMo by those who participate. All over the world, thousands of novelists will be attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I’m going to be one of them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done NaNoWriMo. In fact, the first three books of my African Violet Club mystery series started out as NaNo novels. But long before that, in 2004, I did my first NaNoWriMo. For three years, I’d been trying to complete my first novel. Like most new novelists, I was struggling. I’d get so far and then stall out. I didn’t know what to write. My story sucked. I was lost and frustrated and depressed.

Then I heard of this insane (to me) event where a bunch of people committed to writing a novel in a single month. It didn’t have to be a good novel. It just had to be done. You couldn’t write a single word until November 1st, and with any luck, you’d type your fifty-thousandth word on November 30th. Ideally that would be the word “End,” and the word before it would be “The.”

Something incredible happens when your focus is on writing 1667 words every day for thirty days. You don’t have time to worry about whether they’re good words or the right words or, sometimes, whether they make any sense. You have to put your internal editor on vacation. For a perfectionist like me, that’s tough to do. But it was the secret to actually getting to “The End” for me. That first year, I wrote a 50,690 word novel called “A Pearl of Great Price.” It was a mystery, of course.

There are all kinds of tricks to accomplish this. One is going to group write-ins. Local Nano’ers will meet at a specified time and place and work on their novels together for a few hours. The Municipal Liaisons bring swag, little things associated with writing or just for fun. Often there will be writing sprints, where everyone has to type as many words they can in 15 minutes (or some other arbitrary amount of time). At the end, you compare notes.

There are plot bunnies, something everyone tries to include in their story in the next writing sprint. Various people might throw these ideas out. Most of the time, they’ll have nothing to do with the novel you’re writing. But that’s what makes it fun. If you’re writing a cowboy romance and the plot bunny is a medieval knight, you have to come up with a way to include it. Usually, it doesn’t make sense. But your imagination, under pressure, sometimes comes up with something incredible, something that takes your novel in a direction you never thought about.

I first finished a novel on November 30th of that year. I still have it on my hard drive. It’s not something I’d publish. Not in its current form anyway. Some day I’ll have to read through it and see if there’s anything worth salvaging. But that hardly matters. What I learned was not only that I could finish a novel, but how to do it. It’s no big secret. You put your butt in the chair, your hands on the keyboard, and don’t stop (except for breaks every once in a while) until you hit your word count goal for the day. As Nora Roberts says, you can’t edit a blank page.

I rarely do write-ins now. I don’t use plot bunnies to increase my word count. But, if I’m close to starting a new novel toward the end of the year, I’ll usually join NaNo to encourage me to work on it every day. This is one of those years. Let the typing begin!

Little Girl Dreams

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Every little girl dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up. When I was a child, princess was a favorite idea. We’d make crowns out of construction paper and decorate them with crayons. One of our mother’s old dresses became a suitable gown for our make-believe princess selves.

I’ve often mentioned how I wrote my first story in kindergarten. Throughout the years, I continued to write stories. When I was getting ready to go to college, my mother asked me what I wanted to be. I said, “A writer.” I’m not sure why this caught her by surprise, or maybe it was dismay. I do know that her response was, “You could be a teacher and write books in the summer.” That pretty much dashed my hopes of following that career. (A long story for another blog.)

But another dream I had was of being an astronaut. In fifth grade, I discovered a book called “The Rolling Stones” in our school library. This was long before the British rock group came into being. No, it was about a family named Stone that traveled the solar system, a kind of RVing in space. I’d never read science fiction before, and I had my doubts about whether I’d like it or not. But how could I resist a story about a family with my last name?

I loved it! In fact, I then proceeded to read every Heinlein juvenile I could get my hands on. I widened my reading to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg—too many to mention. I always liked science, so science fiction was a perfect match for me.

With the selection of the Mercury Seven and the suborbital flights that led to landing on the moon, it seemed as if all the wonderful adventures I’d read about were very close to becoming reality. And one of my dreams became to be an astronaut.

Even while I had it, I knew it wasn’t very realistic. Astronauts were all from the military at that time. That meant being in excellent physical shape and being able to run obstacle courses and such. I’ve been overweight my entire life. I’m also not very coordinated. I was the one who was picked last—if at all—when teams were chosen in school. (Except for spelling bees, where I was picked first, of course.) I knew I’d never pass the physical tests, much less the rigorous training astronauts had to go through.

What I didn’t know was that John F. Kennedy’s dream of landing a man on the moon would be over once we accomplished that. No one else (until Donald Trump) thought space exploration was important. We gave up building rockets to go to the moon and instead built the space shuttle. Then we gave up building spacecraft at all, instead relying on the Russians to bring us to the International Space Station and back. It turned out astronaut wasn’t a viable career for anyone for a while. Or at least, only for very few.

So you can imagine how excited I was when the news was full of the first all-woman spacewalk yesterday. Not only has our space program been reinvigorated, but women are a major part of it. I felt a pang of regret that I was now too old to ever be an astronaut, but happy tears came to my eyes when one of the women (I think it was Christine Koch, but it may have been Jessica Meir) was interviewed by the media. The reporter asked when she had decided to become an astronaut. Her answer? “When I was five.”

Tears because one little girl had her dream come true. Yay, her!

There has also been a happy ending for me. While my dreams of being a princess or an astronaut turned out to be impractical, I’ve been following my dream of being a writer for almost twenty years. You’re never too old to be a writer.

Photo Credit: NASA

Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh My!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019
That about describes how I’ve been feeling recently—as if I encounter wild animals every day. Oh, not literally, but between writing, my critique group, working on the newsletter for my Sisters in Crime chapter, marketing, and going all-in on selling books on Amazon, I feel like I’m always dodging a beast that might devour me. The latest crises had to do with my website.

Almost two years ago, I decided that I needed a more professional website for my author business. All the cool kids were using self-hosted WordPress sites, so I thought I needed one, too. I did a lot of research on various hosting companies, what theme I should use, and what plugins I should add. Eventually, I concluded that GoDaddy, where I already had my domain registered, actually gave the best pricing over the long term. Besides, I was familiar with them.

I then spent an agonizing couple of months while I battled with WordPress. Everyone says how easy WordPress is to use, but I found it anything but easy. Now, maybe it’s easy compared to hand coding HTML and CSS and Javascript, but there’s still an awful lot to learn. Eventually, with a lot of help from a writer friend, I managed to figure out what I was doing and put together my current website.

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Behind the Books of a New Series

Twenty years ago, I was dating a man who lived in Hull, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston. I was living in New York at the time...

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