Friday, November 23, 2012


Using quotations in our writing can sometimes cause logistic problems. I saw a line from  Maya Angelou on a funerial remembrance website and thought it was a good fit for one of my novels. It took hours of searching through most of her poetry books when I discovered it wasn't part of a poem. It was from a collection of her quotations. Then of course the next step was to take the route of permissions from her publishers. You can tell, I'm sure that what I'm saying is, quotations should really  be valuable to you and pertinent to your writing for you to spend the time. That quote was a key to the plot of the first book in my series, The Maine Shore Chronicles. A continuing character in that series is always spouting cryptic observations, sometimes critical, sometimes motivational such as scriptural quotes, and sometimes just a plain common sense adage. One of hers I particularly like is "Mama says If you can't sing along, just hum and smile while you do it."
Since my creation of Tante Margaret's character, I am always on the alert for good quotations.

To my delight this year GOODREADS website began a "Quote of The Day" program. As a member of that site I have enjoyed that column from the start, especially when the quotes have to do with writing! Some are ancient, some are contemporary. Below are two my fellow writers should enjoy.

August 24, 2012
"I am not sure that I exist,actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited."
Jorge Luis Borges
The author of Fictiones was born on this day in 1899.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded,no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight,to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all."
Richard Wright
The author of Native Son was born on this day in 1908.

One of my favorites by Voltaire, early author of Candide is :
 "Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats"
And one for which I've never found the author, but seems to suit for a closing of this blog:
"Life isn't about how to survive in the storm. It is about learning how to dance in the rain."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Conquering Fears

Everyone has fears. Lots of people, including myself, are afraid of spiders and snakes. (Has anyone seen the Huntsman Spider from Australia - it's HUGE!). And snakes are just slithery creatures that I would prefer to leave alone. I have a friend who is afraid of clowns, and another who loves demented clowns - I hope they never meet. For some reason my six-year-old great nephew has decided that flowers are scary - maybe a bee stung him, no one really knows.

The fact of the matter is that everyone has something that creeps them out. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom when Kate walks into the cave filled with big black crunchy crawling bugs? In a gauzy outfit and slippers, ICK! Give me a pare of army boots and full body armor, please. But it was a great way to up the tension in an already exciting story.

We authors harvest our fears and the fears of others to make our stories deep and promote an emotional reaction. Alarm. Agitation. Danger. Dread. Apprehension. All these promote feelings in the reader - and guess what, the author also.

I started writing a thriller once, thinking it would be fun and exciting. It turned out that it made me so tense I couldn't write. There are just some places I can't go in my imagination - it's much too vivid. Authors who can write about things that go bump in the night without staying up wide-eyed as a result are admirable. I guess I'm not very brave.

Why did I write about fear right before Thanksgiving? I have no clue, since we'll be traveling to be with family and having a great time. It's just amazing where the thoughts of an author go when you let them.

Have a Happy and Healthy Holiday! (And don't be afraid to eat too much, especially if you can sleep in on Friday.)
P.S. Since I'll be cooking I may not respond to your comments as quickly as normal. For that I apologize and hope that you will comment anyway. I'll check as soon as I can.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Interview with Author Sheila York by Jacqueline Seewald

After a long career in TV and radio, Sheila York began writing mysteries combining her love of history, mysteries and the movies. Set in post-war Hollywood, her series features screenwriter/reluctant heiress/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and lover, P.I. Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of Film. Lauren’s third adventure, Death in Her Face, was published in October.

 Sheila, congrats on the great reviews this novel garnered from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! I also love the cover art and believe it will draw readers.

Question: How would you describe your series, if you had to pick a genre?

Answer: If I had to pick a genre, I’d have to pick two. Or maybe three. I’d call my series a historical mystery with some noir sensibilities—as one might expect since it’s set in the 1940s.  But it’s not hard-boiled. I couldn’t do hard-boiled. I’m too optimistic. My series also has a strong romantic element in the relationship between my protagonist, Lauren Atwill, and the private detective she’s fallen in love with after the wreck of her disastrous marriage to a movie star. Peter Winslow, the PI, is the Mr. Right who looks about as wrong for her as a guy can be. She comes from money; he went to work for a gangster when he was just a kid. He’s tough; he’s used to giving orders. She’s used to doing things her own way. Hey, she’s a script doctor after all. An artist has to follow her instincts. It’s her job to fix other people’s messes. Even if it turns out that fixing them means finding the person who left a dead body lying around.

Question: Why the 1940s?

Answer: I love movies, from all eras, but I have a strong attachment to many of the movies of the great golden age of film, which runs roughly from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s (you can get arguments started about the exact range). I’m also a great fan of Raymond Chandler, and most women who adore Chandler’s books fall a little in love with Philip Marlowe. But I wasn’t going to write a story about a private detective in 1940s LA. At least not with him as the chief protagonist. I wanted a woman. I wanted an amateur sleuth. So I wrote a variation on the theme of the woman coming to a private detective because she’s in real trouble. I told it from the woman’s point of view. That’s how Lauren Atwill was born.

Question: Death in Her Face is your latest. How did you pick that title? 

Answer: A beautiful starlet has vanished and her gangster boyfriend lies dead in the burned out hulk of their secret love nest. The title seemed a natural fit, especially when Lauren finds another body, someone connected to the starlet’s movie. The starlet might be a killer in more than looks.

I vaguely recalled a line from a romantic poem about a doomed lady, wasting from unrequited love, and a balladeer who sees “death in her face.” Alas, I can’t find the poem. It might have been a French poem I read in college, and I’m recalling what would have been the English translation. Ah well, the title works.

Question:  What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: The inspiration was the killing of a small-time hoodlum named Johnny Stompanato in the home of the movie icon Lana Turner back in the 1950s. I read about that case when I was a child, and until that moment, I believed movie stars lived the lives of their publicity. I thought their world was perfect. How could a woman get herself entangled with a volatile, dangerous man? Why would she stay with him? Why would she refuse the studio’s demand to cut off the affair? Was it fear? Was it love? Or was it something else? The Stompanato case made a profound impression on me. And when I started to write my series, it was the fictional possibility of that ‘something else’ that intrigued me, and unfettered by reality, I found a much more complicated reason for my starlet’s affair with the gangster. My book’s plot bears no resemblance to the Stompanato case at all. But its revelation of what lies beneath the beautiful mask of Hollywood certainly inspired me. 

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and hero?

Answer:  My heroine, Lauren Atwill, is a Hollywood screenwriter. She compromised a promising career trying to save a marriage, and by the time it finally crashed, it had very nearly taken her career with it. She’s mostly relegated to being a script doctor these days. She has a strong instinct to fix things. She’s brave, smart, witty, fiercely loyal, and when she gets her teeth into something, she doesn’t let go. She’s stubborn (just ask Peter about that). If she has an idea, she runs with it. A blessing in her writing career, a bit dangerous in her personal life. Peter Winslow, with whom she investigates in frequently stormy tandem, is a private detective who’s been around the block a few times. He started out working for a gangster in the Depression as a teenager, to feed his family. And he did what he had to do to keep the job. He’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of. He knows he and Lauren are a long shot. But he can’t resist her. She’s not like any other woman he ever met. 

Question:  Tell us about the other books in your series.

Answer:  Death in Her Face is the third in the Lauren Atwill, screenwriter, series. The first novel, Star Struck Dead, won a Daphne du Maurier award and was nominated as Best First Mystery by the Romantic Times. It’s the story of a tangled web of blackmail and murder, and it’s the story of how Lauren met Peter. Lauren’s second adventure, A Good Knife’s Work, takes her to New York City and into the world of a 1940s radio mystery program, where reality is created by sound alone. It’s all about deception, even after the microphones are turned off, and Lauren must peel away layer after layer of lies to solve the killing of a friend. 

Question:  What are you working on now?

Answer:  My fourth Lauren mystery. I haven’t settled on a title yet. It’s due to the publisher at the end of the year, so I’ve had my head down and am writing like a maniac. Lauren is loaned out by Marathon Studios, where she’s spent most of her career, and she’s loaned out to what she considers a second-rate studio! She’s not one bit happy. She’s thinks the head of Marathon has done it because he’s superstitious, to test whether it’s true that, when Lauren signs on to a movie, somebody gets killed. Then somebody gets killed. Then…the body disappears.

Question:  What made you start writing?

Answer: I can hardly recall a time when I didn’t want to write, so it’s impossible to say what made me start. I think writers just can’t help themselves. But at some point when I was young, I decided that, although I dreamed of writing professionally, I wasn’t good enough to even think about a career at it. Partly this was because I was terribly, terribly shy and insecure. But I also think a contributing factor was the reaction my writing got in school. When we were given creative writing assignments, I’d write a romantic mystery, but the teachers were looking for “literary” writing. I mean, mysteries? They weren’t “serious” fiction. And I’m afraid the system didn’t give encouragement to writing that wasn’t “serious.” When I think of the overwrought prose I had to listen to in class being read aloud as examples of what we should all aspire to…  I wish I’d known then it ain’t necessarily so.

So perhaps the question is why did I start writing again?

Two things happened, several years ago: 1) My husband, David F. Nighbert, began working on his first novel, and I saw how it was done, and I began to think maybe I should give it a try; 2) I had dinner with a friend from college days, and we had a bit too much wine and started talking about the romance novel we ought to write. It was just in fun. But later, I thought, why not? I decided I would not end up at 80 full of regret that I never gave writing a chance. So I wrote the book. It took six years. And it’s sitting in a file cabinet in my attic. It’s too long and has some other challenges—all the mistakes of a first book. But I started toying with another idea, about a screenwriter in Hollywood in the golden age of film, who gets herself into some very big trouble and can’t go to the police. That book was Star Struck Dead.

Question:  What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

Answer: Finish the book. I meet an amazing number of new writers who are worried about marketing their books and they only have 100 pages finished. Finish it, leave it in a drawer for three months (no peeking) and then take it out, re-read it and rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it.

Carve out time to write. Set yourself a schedule of some sort. Don’t wait for inspiration. I think sometimes we do a disservice to new writers by talking about how our “characters just took over” while we were writing. Without that comment being explained in much more detail, it sounds as if there’s some magic out there and one morning you’ll wake up with an idea, and the book will just write itself. It won’t.

Question:  Where can readers buy your new book?

Answer: Death in Her Face was released in October, and you can buy it now, online or in stores. A terrific holiday present (it takes place around Christmas in 1946!). If you order a copy of the book to be shipped to you from Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, I’ll sign it for you! My office is not that far from the store.

Sheila, thanks for being our guest author today. Anyone who would like to comment is
welcome in this forum. Sheila will be coming by to read and respond.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Political Pollsters and the Blank Page

Every election year I seem to learn something unexpected about myself, and this year I learned that I am an important demographic for people who are desperate to predict the future. I have come to this conclusion because in the last three days I have received as many polling calls. "If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?" How many times can anyone ask me that question? Other questions follow, usually a list of races and choices. Some of the polls include additional questions on elected officials not running, my views on the economy, my political affiliations (if any), or my willingness to speak to a reporter.

 In the late 1970s I was visiting my parents when the phone rang. It was a pollster. I answered a number of questions. No one seemed to care that I wasn't a registered voter in the state, so I answered about a dozen questions. When I hung up my father asked me who that was? I told him. "I've waited thirty years for a call like that." He was more than a little chagrined to have missed the call. He had missed his big opportunity to tell the government exactly nothing.

My husband has also had a number of these calls, but he's had many more over the last few weeks. He is special enough to get a call from a real person and he gives the poor soul useless answers. My husband insists he only votes on Mars, so the questions for him are irrelevant. But then he thinks the polls are irrelevant.

Right now I tend to side with my husband.

We cannot predict the future, and we shouldn't really try. Uncertainty is part of life. Learning to live with it is one measure of maturity. Writers do this every day when we sit down and face the blank page. Every day, I wonder what on earth am I going to write?

I could see the result of my uncertainty as I reread a story I'd written recently. I liked the way it turned out, but the ending wasn't what I had planned or expected when I started out. The unexpected ending was much better--it was more nuanced, more complex, more satisfying. But I wouldn't have gotten there if I had insisted on the original plan. I had to let go and write with a sense of uncertainty but also with a sense of confidence that the story would go where it had to go, and where it had to go would be worthwhile.

Over the next few days before the presidential election I expect I will get a few more pollsters, and I will give them the same answers. If I get a live person, I might give the unlucky fellow a few answers he won't like and won't know what to do with. But I will think of this as a chance to broaden someone's consciousness about certainty and doubt, openness and discovery. Who knows what might transpire?