Friday, December 23, 2011

Chasing History

When I research for books it seems I am often chasing history, so it was dejavu when an essay I submitted to a magazine was accepted and published with the title,"Chasing History". The article can be found in the "New Books" section of the holiday issue of Mystery Scene magazine. I was thrilled, of course, so I choose to sharethe essay in my blog today.

"Would you believe a picture on the wall of a defunct cotton mill could inspire a series? Could a New England mill town be a vibrant sense of place for the setting? Yes and yes! The seed for the stories in The Maine Shore Chronicles was a lithograph, circa 1845, of a woman tending a spinning frame in a local cotton mill. In my mind's eye the woman in the picture metamorphosed into my grandmother, who actually came to that town with her family in 1890 to work in the mills. the lithograph inspired me to write a series about characters with a mix of my heritage in a real place on Maine's coast that is steeped in ethnicity and tradition.
Chasing after the source of that drawing for permission to use it in my writing was a three month's search that tested my patience. I discovered that the original lithograph was held in the collections of a textile museum in Massachusetts. After many phone calls, letters and emails I received permission from the museum to place the drawing in my first book of the Maine Shore Chronicles series, Finding Fiona.  Research and writing of  three books in this series has taken six years. I realized that getting published was one part luck,one part talent and one part persistence, and I'm certain I had the last part. I mix mysticism with faith in the books with what I hope is surprising results. My new book, Promise Keeper, contains a smidgen of mysticism from my family background. My great grandmother was a healer and a seer. Those skills are inherited by my series continuing character, Tante Margaret.That brings us full circle, since my inspiration for Tante was the woman in the 1840's lithograph."
Back to Author Expressions , now that there are only two days left and counting and the spirit of Christmas abounds, allow me to share the essence of another blog I viewed last week, called "Christmas Balance". It was about preparing for the next year's holiday by doing after Christmas shopping at a savings, then stashing the gifts away for giving the following year.
Since I am continually chasing history, I'm reminded that I did something similar years ago, using a plan called "The Christmas Club". You banked money each month in a savings "club" bank to have funds for the following year's gifts. Anyone remember that?
I'll tuck that one away for a future book! For now the hall is decked, carols fill the air, and greetings and gifts are mailed. All is in readiness because spouse and I will be celebrating Christmas aboard a sailing ship this year. Meantime, I extend wishes for a blessed and joyful Christmas, a happy Hanukkah and a peaceful New Year to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Muse versus Inner Critic

Muse versus Inner Critic
by B.D. Tharp

I believe that every author has a “muse” (a source of inspiration and an “inner critic” (one who expresses judgments of merit or faults with regard to artistic or literary work). We are generally our own worst critic and doubt our abilities or declare ourselves incapable of creating something worthwhile. (Confidence, why do you elude us?) We also can inspire ourselves as well as others. Both the muse and inner critic serve a valuable purpose, but for them to be effective there must be a balance. (Do I hear dueling banjos?)

During a writer’s retreat I attended years ago our leader said we should each bring something that represented our “inner critic”. When we got to the hotel we were told to put them in a black garbage bag during the workshops until the last day when they would be returned to us. I drew a picture of a Sesame Street monster and he went away for four days and didn’t bug me. It was a great ritual that helped me forget about it for a while. When I’m home I do something similar, by putting it in a drawer – out of sight.

(One of the other writer’s in the group brought one of those squishy stress dolls that you squeeze and it’s eyes and ears pop out from the body. That one was really great.)

Lately, I haven’t felt very inspired. My muse just hasn’t been with the program. So, when I won a Smurf with a laptop for a door prize at the KWA Holiday party yesterday I decided right then that it would be my new muse.

My little blue muse is sitting beside my laptop poised and ready to write, while I am writing. It’s like I’m not so alone right now, I have a little writing buddy with me. Silly, I know, but I’ve found that rituals can mean a lot to a creative person. We have our comfortable chair, the favorite pen, maybe a candle burning, soft instrumental music in the background, whatever helps to put you in the frame of mind you need to escape into your story.

I also have some inspirational sayings on my tack board like: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Another writing buddy finds photos in magazines that look like her characters and she tapes them to her wall beside the computer to keep a clear picture in mind. If you haven’t already, find your inspiration and make it a part of your writing process.

Our neighborhood bookstore closed recently and that was where I used to go every weekend to write. The atmosphere was perfect for getting in touch with a literary muse. Books everywhere, readers of all ages and the lattes were great, too. I miss it SO MUCH, but I’ve asked Santa to bring us another. If the used bookstore across the street would add some tables and chairs, and maybe a coffee bar – that could work! Right now, though I’m searching for a new place. Even JK Rowling wrote at the coffee shop, but our closest one is too small to hang out in for hours at a time.

Tell us about what inspires you to write and what you do to combat an over zealous inner critic.

Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Keep Series Novels Interesting

How to Keep Series Novels Interesting
by Jacqueline Seewald

The November 2011 issue of THE WRITER featured an article by Anne Perry entitled “How to Keep a Series Interesting.” Since I write a romantic mystery series, needless to say, I read this article with thoroughness. Perry, a well-known mystery writer, discusses setting, character and theme.

Readers enjoy a consistency of setting in a series. My own opinion is that the setting should be one the author knows well whether it be a city he/she has lived in, a rural community, an exotic place visited, or an historic location that has been researched in detail. This lends authenticity to the novel. For instance, in the first mystery in my Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series, THE INFERNO COLLECTION, I chose a university setting because it was one I was very familiar with. I had not only received several graduate degrees, I both taught English and was an academic librarian (at different times) at Rutgers. However, intending to keep the series fresh, I provided each of the three novels with a different local in Central N.J. where I lived for forty years. THE DROWNING POOL is set in a luxury apartment complex. The main locale for THE TRUTH SLEUTH is a NJ high school.

Perry writes that a series should have characters you will want to return to again and again. I agree that this is crucial in a series. We enjoy reading Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series because we know the characters and they make us laugh. We enjoy reading the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series because of the wonderfully charming characters Alexander McCall Smith has created. In THE DROWNING POOL, the second mystery novel in my series, Kim Reynolds and homicide detective Mike Gardner return to solve another set of murders. They are joined by a new character, a woman of color, police detective Bert St. Croix. The three main characters are very different in personality and background but each lends something unique to the novel.

A wonderful article on mystery series detectives “The (Really) Long Goodbye” appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, July 1, 2011. The theme of the article was that some well-known series detectives are cash cows that have become long in the tooth. The article emphasizes the popularity of this form of mystery.

In her article, Anne Perry also discusses theme as an important component in series fiction and offers the example of disillusionment. In mysteries, people are not as they would appear and so there is an element of disillusionment. That can also be true of society in general and the legal system in particular.

I believe that plot is also key in the mystery novel or any series. In the Kim Reynolds series, there are connected murders that need to be solved. The main characters may even become personally involved as in THE TRUTH SLEUTH when Kim initially finds the body of a murdered boy and discovers another at the high school.

I am pleased that THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL are now available in less expensive e-book formats from L&L Dreamspell. You can check them out at:

Do series novels have an advantage over stand alone novels? As a reader or as a writer, which do you prefer?

In keeping with the holiday spirit, I am offering to send a review copy of THE TRUTH SLEUTH, the third novel in my Kim Reynolds mystery series, to a commenter who will be chosen at random. If you want to be included in the giveaway, please leave either an e-mail address where you can be reached or a website address. It will only be used for purposes of this drawing. Happy holidays to everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Soap through the Ages

In researching for my current work-in-progress, I ventured into the world of early sanitation, and interestingly, found the earliest reference to soap was in the 4th c., when Galen, that great medical researcher, said people should use it to keep impurities from the body. During the middle ages, they knew to cleanse their hands before eating, but they only dipped them in perfumed water, which was better than nothing, but I suspect it was to get rid of unsightly dirt rather than to cleanse.

One of the earliest uses of soap was to prepare wool for weaving. Later, soap began to be an elemental part of bathing, and soap-making guilds became prominent in Italy and Spain. Soap-making was sometimes considered “women’s work”, although as it became a prized commodity the skill became one of craftsmanship, with one soap-maker trying to outdo the next with softening agents.

Gradually, coloring agents and perfumes were added, and soap was sold in both liquid and solid forms. Today, Marseille and Castile soap are made from mostly olive oil, and are considered more pure than soaps with harsher chemicals.

In the tenth century, soap was a minor luxury, and cost about one-third of a dinar (dinero, denier).

A Persian chemist wrote recipes for making soap, as did other soap-makers. Here is a recipe from a thirteenth century document:

Take sesame oil, a sprinkle of potash, alkali, and some lime, mix together and boil. Pour into molds and leave to harden. Surprisingly, this is not a lot different from the current process, except for the addition of perfumes.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Researching the Next Book

One of my favorite writers, H.R.F. Keating, wrote a short piece about writing and research for fiction. I read through it avidly, thinking this would be the greatest advice because his books were fabulous. Keating was known for the Inspector Ghote series, which he started before ever having visited India. Those of us who knew India expected amazing gems from someone who had to know the secrets of researching a novel because he clearly "got" India. His advice: Read one book on the subject you're interested in and then start writing. It was really that simple.

Keating wasn't being entirely facetious. He had a capacious mind and he could absorb one book thoroughly on one reading. Most of us aren't that smart and we need to read two or three or more books and then reread them, taking notes and checking back again and again. But his point was valid. The point of the reading is to get to know the subject so that we can write the story. Get to the story sooner rather than later. It's sound advice.

In January I head back to India, to Kerala, where the Anita Ray stories are set, and I already have several ideas for the next book (this will be book four--the second will be out in June from Five Star, which is also considering number three). This means I want to scout out the landscape the get an idea of how Anita or other characters would react in certain areas--restaurants, bus stations, shops, traffic problems, side streets and alleys. I want to see what Anita would see.

After living there in the 1970s and 1980s I have a pretty good sense of how the cities and towns in the area are laid out. But a lot of years have passed, and even though the main thoroughfares are the same, the towns and cities have sprawled through paddy fields and palm groves, with high rises popping up everywhere. Tracking these changes is important to keeping the story current, so for me research is a lot of walking around, grabbing an autorickshaw, and walking into stores or warehouses or lumber yards. One detail I'm dying to use is the lumberyard with huge stripped trunks of teak sitting opposite the old courthouse of red brick put up during the maharajah's time. It's a visual detail that always delights me when I walk past.

Not far down the street is a narrow lane with a roof of signs for the many advocates (lawyers) located there--all the signs are black with white lettering with lots of degrees after each name. The walker (no room for a car) has to cross a narrow bridge over a concrete channel (open drains from years ago still used for rain water) before entering the world of the advocates and hanging electrical lines.

A few lanes after this is a road with businesses pouring into the street, and on one side is the Triveni Nursing Home, an ayurvedic hospital with medical offices. I know a couple of the doctors and admire the way they tend to their patients. I'm pretty sure that sometime in the future ayurveda and its practitioners will figure in one of my novels. In earlier years I passed the Ayurveda College on Main Road almost daily, stopping to stand under the spreading trees to get out of the sun before continuing on my way.

This kind of research--going where my characters will go--is something I learned early. There has to be something real in a story--a place, a character, a situation--or the story will feel thin, not quite grounded. For me place is the grounding. In January I'll be finding new places for Anita and others to discover. And as always, I'll take pictures, spread them out on my desk when I get back, and gaze at them now and then while writing. And we call this work.