Friday, July 28, 2017

How I Mined My Day Job to Write Mysteries by Sarah Wisseman

By day, I’m an archaeologist at the University of Illinois. At night and on weekends, I morph into a mystery writer. My series is the Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries, and my protagonist is a lot like me. She’s a museum curator trained in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology, she spent a junior year in Israel, and she has a daughter, a cat, and a medical husband (not necessarily in that order!).

So how does one go from archaeology to murder? I grew up in a household full of moldering old paperback mysteries (mostly Golden Age British novels), and my parents liked to read aloud to us from Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles and the like. Then I got a job in a dusty old attic museum where broken windows allowed pigeons to fly in and out. While working on an interdisciplinary mummy project, I realized that my workplace was the perfect setting for murder.

Thus my first novel, “Bound for Eternity,” was born. In this story, Lisa discovers that an Egyptian mummy holds the secrets to two murders in her Boston Museum. (My old museum was moved from Illinois to Boston to protect the innocent). 

The prequel, “The Dead Sea Codex,” allowed Lisa to revisit Israel, hook up with an old boyfriend, and crisscross the desert looking for an ancient manuscript before Christian fanatics destroy it. Book 3 in the series, “The Fall of Augustus,” takes Lisa back to her museum at a time when the staff is supposed to move enormous plaster statues of Roman emperors and Greek gods down through an old elevator shaft. Sounds dangerous, right? Some of my colleagues actually did this at Illinois without misadventure, but naturally I changed the facts in my mystery so I could have the vicarious thrill of killing off two museum directors.

Book 4, “The House of the Sphinx,” takes a new direction. Lisa and her radiologist husband, James, take a delayed honeymoon in Egypt, where they stumble upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox. I like to say that this plot (instead of another archaeological caper) is my husband’s fault, and that he’s a ghoul. Actually, Charlie’s a retired pathologist, and a great source of information on all things medical. He used to work for the Centers for Disease Control, and pointed me to their website. There I found a public, fully detailed plan for dealing with a modern smallpox epidemic. Scary stuff. While I Googled bioweapons and tried to figure out how to weaponize smallpox virus, the thought did cross my mind that someone out there might be watching my Internet use…fortunately, no one showed up on my doorstep.

I see many similarities between mystery writing and my “day job.”  Archaeology is like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing; constructing a mystery is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, but all the pieces should be there and should fit at the end. Archaeologists deal with layers (stratigraphy), with the stuff on top being the most recent and the stuff deep down being the oldest. Similarly, the visible story in a mystery is the top layer (what the writer wants you to see), and the deeper layers hold the motives, the clues, and the detailed plot that is gradually revealed.

Many of us mine our day jobs to write stories. How do you connect your day job with mystery writing or reading?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Reviews Please!

Do you ever feel like a beggar when you're asking readers to write a review? 

Yes. People are busy and forget, so it doesn't hurt to remind them, right? It still feels a little like begging to me. But without reviews how will new readers find our stories?

A good review is priceless!

Therefore, I will continue to ask everyone to write them. Reviews create a buzz. It's called marketing, and it takes time. But Buzz sells books. Personally, I love when a friend tells me about a new book they enjoyed. It goes on my "to read" list, or in my Kindle, or they sometimes even share the book. That's always fun. Many of my books have been through the hands of family and friends before I donate them to the library.

What about a bad review?

That's an excellent question, right? The fact is our stories will not appeal to everyone. I cried when I got my first bad review, but I noticed something resulting from it. A bad review can promote discussion, and that is the best way to learn about new books - Word of Mouth!

Do you write reviews?

OMG, yes. I try to review every book I read. I, too, occasionally forget though, then I feel terrible for a moment until I write it. Stories that stick with me are easy to go back and write reviews for, and I don't mind doing it a bit. If it has been too long, I pop over to Amazon and reread the synopsis and that generally brings it back to me. If I just can't remember I will reread it before I write a review.

Where do you write or read book reviews? is always good, but my favorite is Anywhere that you purchase a book, you can usually write a review -,,, Kobo, GooglePlay, etc. You can also post reviews on social media - Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and many more that I don't currently subscribe to or haven't used yet.

Do you always write a good review? 

No. But I share my likes first and stay professional and concise with my dislikes. Again, not every book will resonate with every person. And sometimes as authors, we are asked to review a book that needs additional work/editing/, etc. When that happens, I write the author directly and explain what I am thinking - not for the world to see. We all deserve an opportunity to improve upon the story before it is in front of the masses.

Enjoying the journey, talking to authors.

Don't forget to help authors by writing book reviews.
Amazon Author Page

Friday, July 14, 2017


Sheri Cobb South is our special guest blogger for Author Expressions. Be sure to check out her wonderful mystery novels on Amazon, B&N Online, and many other booksellers.  And now, here’s Sheri.

First of all, the title of this article is false advertising: No one else can write like Mary Stewart, any more than they can write like any other author. Still, her books do have certain elements in common, and these can be adopted in order to evoke the tone of that heyday of romantic suspense. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10:
#1. Be British. (Well, rats. Moving right along . . .)
#2. Give your book an exotic location, and describe it vividly. Mary Stewart took her readers on literary jaunts not only to her native Britain, but also to France, Austria, Greece, and Damascus. I credit her books with giving me a lifelong craving for travel, so it’s only fitting that my own book follows the itinerary of a Mediterranean cruise I took with my husband a couple of years ago, including stops in Italy, Greece, and Turkey.
#3. Set your book in the late 1950s or early to mid-1960s. This was when Mary Stewart and the romantic suspense novel were at the height of their popularity, so setting a book there is, in essence, returning to the genre’s roots.
#4. Give your book a young but intelligent heroine, who narrates the tale in the first person as it unfolds. I realize there are readers for whom the first-person point of view is a deal-breaker, but in a suspense novel, the almost claustrophobic constraints of this point of view give a greater sense of immediacy and danger, as it eliminates the “middle man” of a third-person narrator who stands between the heroine and the reader. And while young/ingenue heroines have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the heroine’s youth means we can forgive her for errors in judgment that would be eyeroll-inducing in a more mature woman.
#5 Plunge your heroine into danger through accidental, even random, circumstance: she sees something she’s not supposed to see, she’s inadvertently given something that belongs to someone else, etc., and at first she may not recognize the significance of the event. (It’s interesting that romantic suspense heroines seem to share this element with many of Alfred Hitchcock’s heroes—a plot device Hitchcock dubbed the “MacGuffin”; perhaps it’s no coincidence that there is a significant overlap in Stewart and Hitchcock’s peak years.)
#6 Give your book a hero with something to hide, preferably something that ties into the mystery. Perhaps the heroine isn’t sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy, but even if she never mistakes him for the villain (or, if she does, soon realizes her error), he may still be a bit of an enigma that she must “solve” along with the mystery.
#7 The developing relationship between the hero and heroine relies on sexual tension rather than sex. Granted, part of this is because of the time Stewart was writing, but I think it makes sense in this genre in a couple of other ways, as well. For one thing, there’s the matter of trust: If she things he might be the villain, or otherwise fears she can’t trust him, she would be stupid to go to bed with him. Later in the book, any trust issues may have been resolved, but by this time the sense of danger is heightened. If her life, and perhaps his too, is in danger, and they stop everything for five to ten pages of hot sex, they probably deserve whatever the villain has planned for them! (But at least they’ll die happy? Hmm…)
#8. Let glimpses of humor show through. Besides helping maintain sexual tension (especially in the absence of actual sex), humorous moments allow readers to catch their breath between dangerous/suspenseful incidents.
#9. Sprinkle literary references throughout your book. I think it is this, more than any other element, that lifts Stewart’s work over the other romantic suspense authors of her day. It’s also the one I found the most daunting. Fortunately, the fact that my heroine was an English teacher meant she would have a knowledge of literature at her command. Furthermore, my own background as a writer of Regencies meant I was familiar with the Elgin Marbles and Lord Byron’s vociferously stated opinion of Lord Elgin’s removing them from Greece, both of which made their way into my book.
#10. Begin each chapter with an apropos quotation. Three words: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. This can be time-consuming, but I’ve found readers respond to it very well. It gives them a little “mystery” at the beginning of each chapter, as they form their own theories as to how the quotation will relate to the action, and then read on to see if they were right.
 And there you have it. Even if my tips won’t turn you into Mary Stewart overnight, I hope they will enhance your reading of romantic suspense novels, or assist you in writing your own.

Note: Sheri's latest novel is in the Mary Stewart tradition:

Comments for Sheri welcome here!

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sweet Spot for Book Length, by Susan Oleksiw

The annual survey by Smashwords turned up some interesting information. After I got past the news that Romance was the best-selling genre and mystery/crime fiction didn’t even make it to the top ten, I got hit with the most popular word length. Best-selling Romances are 90,000 to 110,000 words. These books are much longer than the average crime novel, and certainly longer than my first.

The preferred length of fiction in the mystery and crime fiction category has been creeping upward since the 1970s, if not earlier. When Walker Publishing published its mystery line, the standard length was 72,500. An editor I spoke with at a conference was adamant that manuscripts were expected to come in at that length, not over and not under. That’s less than 250 pages in a five-by-eight inch hardcover book. At the moment I have two recent mysteries sitting on my desk. The first is 497 pages and the second is 573 pages. Each page is still the standard thirty to thirty-five lines, with up to eight to eleven words per line. Is this necessary?

When I pick up one of the new mysteries that makes me feel I should head to the gym for some muscle building, I wonder if it will be good enough to justify all that paper (yes, I read on paper). Most of the classics I’ve read aren’t nearly as long as today’s typical mystery novel.

Many of what we consider classic works are satisfyingly short. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) tells a graceful and riveting story in 180 pages. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), about a woman coming to know herself, is even shorter, more novella than novel. George Orwell only needs 96 pages in Animal Farm (1945) to condemn the corruption of society and politicians. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) needs only 176 pages. Shirley Jackson needed 214 pages in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Marilynne Robinson topped her at 219 pages in Housekeeping (1981).

These are novels we don’t forget, but they are also typical of some of the best writing in English. They are pared down and to the point. A sprawling novel like Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853) has many more story lines (and needs 1,036 pages), and was written under different circumstances (serialization). But A Christmas Carol (1843) does the job in 80 pages.

The sweet spot for hard-cover crime fiction, I am told, is about 85,000 words. Cozy paperbacks tend to be shorter, coming in at 75,000 words. When I consider what I read and how I choose books, I find I sometimes select a title that is shorter than the long nonfiction or fiction work I just finished. I don’t want a steady diet of 300 or 450 page books.

I like variety in what I read as well as in what I write. The first Mellingham mystery, Murder in Mellingham (1993), came in at 88,000 words, and the most recent one, Come About for Murder (2016), came in at 72,000.

 To find more of my books in their various lengths, go to:

To learn more about what I'm writing, go to