I love the Zoom meetings we’re having with people from across the country. Writing can be lonely, but the lockdown has brought to the fore this great way of communicating. So, the WritersMic on Tuesday welcomed people from as far … Continue reading
We had another lively meeting at the newly refurbished Barnes & Noble in Westport this week. The refurb has given us a bigger space to meet in – thanks! Twelve of us got to grips with things, and here’s some of what went on. I’ve listed them in date order.
It’s rather late notice, I know, but TONIGHT (April 21st) the Westport Writer’s Workshop will hold a celebration featuring readings from a number of writers. Among them is Fairfield University’s Low-Residency MFA Program Director Sonya Huber, whose latest collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, was published in March; A propos, Sonya has written a blog post about all the available book awards, and provided a handy list here. Did you know you could nominate yourself for a Pulitzer? Free and open to the public, 7:30 PM at 323 Bar & Restaurant in Westport (323 Main Street).
Glimmer Train, the highly respected literary journal, is looking for submissions for their fiction (3,000-20,000 words) and very-short fiction award (300-3,000 words). First Place gets $2,000-3,000, so – worth a try. Deadline April 30.
The Westport Writers’ Workshop (WWW) is presenting a mini-conference as part of the Westport Library’s WestportWRITES program It’s on Sunday, April 30, from 1-5PM. Topic: creative writing and social justice. A selection of speakers will be led by WWW’s Executive Director, Valerie Leff.
The American Society of Journalists and Authors is holding its conference in New York from May 5-6. Their focus is on the business of writing, getting your personal essays published etc.
On Sunday, May 7 at 10:00 a.m, the Connecticut Press Club is sponsoring a workshop with Susan Maccarelli, founder of Beyond Your Blog and its eponymous podcast. Macarelli’s website and newsletters give you tips and strategies for submitting your blog posts to other websites. To be held at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Details here.
On May 14, Colm Toibin, Irish author of Brooklyn, will be speaking at the Westport Library. Register here.
Our next WritersMic evening will be held on May 16, 7-8.45ppm in Westport. Join the Meetup for details and updates.
Creative Non-fiction’s annual writers’ conference will be taking place in Pittsburgh, PA, from May 26-27. Suitable for both novices and experienced writers, the conference aims to help you write better. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with literary agents, get concrete advice from industry insiders, hear what different kinds of editors are looking for, and focus on specific skills in inspiring small-group sessions.
Gotham Writers in New York are holding a Be A Hero Contest. They’re looking for a 50 word story – that’s right, 50 words (or fewer). The title, if you have one, doesn’t count as part of the word count, so I guess you could have a really long title if you need more exposition… The story should be about someone who fought for the right thing in a way that called for courage and commitment. This can be a personal story about, say, your father rescuing you when you were lost in the woods, or a public story about, say, Rosa Parks not moving to the back of the bus. It could also be a made-up story, even an artful retelling of a favorite, such as Erin Brockovich or A Tale of Two Cities. Entries must be submitted online by midnight Eastern May 29,
Moving into early summer, on Saturday, June 3 from 9- 5 p.m, the Mystery Writers of America/New York Chapter is holding a fiction writers’ conference at the Ferguson Library in Stamford. The full-day session will cover subjects like great beginnings, structure, revisions, etc, and will be taught by established members of the MWA. Publishing professionals will also be on hand. $75 per person (MWA members $65), includes all sessions, plus continental breakfast, boxed lunch and a coffee/wine wrap-up party.
June 8-11 sees the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, NH. The society is open to bloggers as well as more traditional columnists.
And finally, one of our members, MarLou Newkirk, had a story published on an interesting website called Motherr. Read it here.
I met Chris Knopf at the CrimeConn conference recently, and was intrigued to find that not only is he a writer of several crime series, but is also Connecticut liaison of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and is one of the publishers at The Permanent Press, which publishes award-winning crime novels. The main protagonist of Cop Job, the sixth novel in Chris’ Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mysteries series, is an intelligent, well-read man who is a master cabinet-maker as well as an amateur sleuth. Sam has a nice way with women, and a sense of humor, too. The novel is somewhere between a crime novel and a thriller, with a little grown-up romance thrown in for good measure, and so well-paced that I found it a pleasure to read.
GC: I don’t read many “thrillers” or gritty crime novels, but I loved your book, Cop Job. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. There’s mystery, suspense, romance and a limited amount of violence. How did you come to write this kind of book, rather than something easier to categorize?
CK: Thanks for that. I like not being pigeon-holed in any particular genre, though most people who are heavily into mysteries would categorized the Sam books as hard-boiled, amateur sleuth. Many years ago my creative director at the ad agency was approached by a Hollywood producer looking for movie concepts. My boss thought it would be fun to get a roomful of copywriters together to brainstorm ideas. Out of this I came up with Sam Acquillo, an ex-corporate burnout who discovered the body of an old lady who’d lived next door. The setting was the Little Peconic Bay in the Hamptons, and included a potential love interest named Amanda. That was all I had, and the partially-written script went nowhere, but about ten years later I turned it into a novel and things went from there.
GC: Your main character, Sam Acquillo, reminds me a little of Spenser (from the novels by the late Robert B. Parker) or Travis McGee (John D MacDonald). They too, were resourceful private eyes with integrity and intelligence who live slightly outside the mainstream. Were these writers/characters favorites of yours?
CK: Yup. Along with Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer. Of those five influences, I always loved Ross MacDonald’s prose and Parker’s dialogue. I also liked Paul Newman’s characters in The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool. Put it all together and stir in my father’s sense of humor and engineering talents, my grandfather’s toughness (a champion boxer) and, of course, my own take on things, and you get Sam Acquillo.
GC: There’s a sense of humor that infuses the book. Is that something you have to think about, or does it come naturally to you when you’re writing? Do you laugh at your own writing?
CK: It comes naturally as I’m writing, though as noted above, my father had a very sardonic wit. I channel some of that. And yes, I often chuckle at Sam’s humor, though usually long after I’ve written the lines when I’m getting the manuscript ready to go to the copy editor.
GC: I know you’ve written two other series, one of which uses Jackie Swaitkowski, who features in the Acquillo books, as the main protagonist. If you had to pick one character to stick with long-term, which would it be?
CK: Sam for sure will always be with me. Jackie, of course, as a key sidekick, will also live on though she could easily turn up again in her own book. I’m probably going to keep Arthur Cathcart’s series as a trilogy. But one should never say never.
GC: You’re very active in Mystery Writers of America. What are the benefits of joining an organization like that?
CK: It’s very important for mystery writers to be part of our rather robust sub-culture. There are lots of conferences, publications, Facebook pages, etc., where we communicate. By we, I mean other writers, commentators, fans, bloggers, etc. It’s a great crowd, and we support each other through thick and thin. I highly recommend joining MWA, but also International Thriller Writers (if you write thrillers), Sisters in Crime (for men and women, though the skew is obviously female) and the International Association of Crime Writers.
David Handler’s writing career has taken him from journalist to writer for films and television to mystery novelist. This prolific author has produced several series of mystery novels, with different detectives in each. The first novel I happened to read was The Coal-Black Asphalt Tomb. It’s the tenth (and latest) in the Berger-Mitry series, which features a mismatched pair of detectives in a small coastal town in Connecticut. The eleventh book, The Lavender Lane Lothario, comes out in February. When David answered my questions, I was fascinated to learn how he develops his characters, and the number of tries it takes to get them right.
GC: You have one of the most unusual setups for a cozy mystery. Your two main characters are about as different as they could be: Desiree Mitry is a black policewoman and her life partner is Jewish New York City film critic, Mitch Berger. What makes the situation unusual, I think is the fact that they both live in a sweet little coastal town in Connecticut. How on earth did you come up with this mix?
DH: Strictly by accident, believe it or not. When I was writing the first book of the series, The Cold Blue Blood, my plan was that it would be about New York City film critic Mitch Berger and his landscape architect wife, Maisie, renting a cottage on Big Sister Island and finding their landlady’s estranged husband buried in the vegetable garden. The first 60 pages or so felt very blah to me so I set the project aside for several months, came back to it and decided to make Mitch a young widower who rents the cottage as a means of trying to heal himself after Maisie’s death. Right away, that gave it a lot more moral weight. When he finds the body a Major Crime Squad homicide investigator is sent to the scene. At first, I wrote him as a black male officer. The dialogue felt flat. So I tried making it a black female officer instead and, wham, sparks started flying and I suddenly realized I was writing a novel about an interracial romance.
GC: I like the town of Dorset, which seems like an amalgam of many little places in Connecticut (apart from its unusually high murder rate). Do you find it restricts your plot opportunities to be in one location?
DH: No, not at all, because what I’m mostly doing is studying people. If you study people then you never seem to run out of ideas. People are endlessly fascinating. My eleventh Berger-Mitry installment, “The Lavender Lane Lothario, will be coming out in February and I have many more ideas for stories to come.
GC: How do you ensure that your technical information is correct? Is it all on Google? And if so, is Google reliable?
DH: I began my career as a journalist so I’m always aiming to be as accurate as I can be. I’m grateful to friends in the profession who provide with me much of the technical detail that I use. Google can be a very valuable resource as well, but you have to be mindful of the reliability of the sites that you are choosing to use as sources. Some are less credible than others.
GC: Tell me honestly – are you a film buff like Mitch, or did you make him up out of thin air?
DH: I am totally Mitch, minus the excess blubber. Think Mitch, except sculpted, and you’ve got me. I spent my entire childhood watching old movies on late night TV and my college and young adult years haunting movie revival houses in Los Angeles and New York City. I began my career as New York cultural correspondent for the Scripps-Howard News Service, which meant I was their Broadway critic and book reviewer. I was also a syndicated television and film critic. In addition – and here’s where I depart a bit from Mitch — I actually wrote for television and films for 20 years before I gave it up to devote my time to being a full-time novelist.
I had been living in Old Lyme, which is the real life model for Dorset, for over ten years before I decided to take a crack at writing about it. I think it’s inevitable that if a writer lives in a place long enough he or she will end up wanting to write about it. That’s just how we’re wired. I had lived exclusively in big cities before I moved here, so this is foreign territory to me. In fact, I am still considered an outsider even though I’ve lived here for 30 years. That’s small town New England! Right now, I’m working on a new Stewart Hoag novel, my first in nearly 18 years. And it has been a genuine joy to write the first two Benji Golden novels, Runaway Man and Phantom Angel. I’d love to keep all three series going. That is certainly my hope.
You can connect with David via his website, Goodreads and Facebook
Clinical psychologist Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib) has published 14 mysteries, including the latest in the Key West food critic series, Fatal Reservations. As you’ll find out below, she’s written more than one mystery series, but she’s used her real name for some and Lucy Burdette for her latest. Like many crime writers, she’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. Her next book, Killer Takeout will be released in April.
GC: First of all, why the pen name?
LB: As I was signing the contract with Signet/NAL, my new editor asked if I’d be willing to use a different name for this series. This would differentiate the Key West series from my previous advice column and golf lovers mysteries which were not as cozy. I was happy to do whatever would help sell books. And I was very happy to choose my grandmother’s name, Lucille aka Lucy Burdette. I get a kick out of carrying her name forward.
LB: About nine years ago, my husband and I drove down the string of islands and bridges that leads to Key West, agreeing that we’d never live in a place so fragile, so isolated, so exposed. But instead of listening to our practical voices, we fell in love and moved in.
The island is totally gorgeous, with its palm trees and turquoise water and eyebrow windows and gingerbread trim. And there’s a thriving artistic scene, and fabulous food, and an amazing literary history.
About this same time, I was planning to pitch a new cozy mystery series. Where should I set it but in Key West, with its delicately balanced development, and its conflicts between old-time Conchs and newcomers, between the richest of the rich, the homeless, and the millions of partying visitors. To find characters and plot ideas, all I have to do is step outside the door…
GC: You have a great website, with a lot of features like recipes (with photos) and blog updates. Do you have help with it, or do you do everything yourself? I’m asking because I know writers need a web site, and many are too frightened of it to even try.
LB: I had help setting this up on WordPress, which is fairly easy to learn. Now I can update things myself, which I’m woefully behind in doing. Look around for websites you admire, and then ask the writers who they used for design, etc. There are tons of resources out there, and many inexpensive designers who can make a website look professional.
GC: You previously wrote a mystery series based on a sleuth who was an advice columnist and another who was a golfer. Now there’s the restaurant critic. Are these all personal interests of yours or did you have to research these careers?
LB: Golf, psychology, and food are all great passions for me. If I love the subject, I find the book easier to write.
GC: Like most mystery readers, I love a series. Seeing the main character develop, and finding out about the people in their private life. Hayley Snow lives with an eccentric 80-something, Miss Gloria, and I love their relationship. Is it easier to write the crime-solving, or the personal life of your characters?
LB: I‘ve always been a huge reader. I tore through the Nancy Drew mysteries, then moved on to my brother’s Hardy boys adventures, gobbling lots of teenage romances in between. What stays with me even years after reading a book are the characters and their conflicts. So I shoot for that when writing my own series. I have lots of ideas of where the characters’ lives will go–and that is my favorite part of writing. But they can still surprise me, which makes it more fun!
Liz Mugavero is a writer determined to make a living with her writing. Right now, she works in marketing and writes at night (she’s been writing since high school). Based on the mystery series she’s writing, the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, I’d guess that she’ll succeed. I read A Biscuit, A Casket, which has a Halloween setting in the otherwise charming Connecticut town of Frog Hollow (sadly imaginary, I think). It’s actually the second book in the series followed by The Icing on the Corpse, which came out earlier this year. The first, Kneading to Die, is an Agatha Award nominee, and shows how Stan got to Frog Ledge and turned into a pet chef. I had a few questions for her about how she came to write the series.
She will also be part of the New England Crime Bake, a crime-writing conference in Dedham, Mass, from November 6-8 for those of you who can make it.
GC: I enjoyed A Biscuit, A Casket – it’s a truly original concept for a cozy mystery. Did you pitch a publisher with the idea, or did they pitch you? (Or tell me how you got the idea and then got it published.)
LM: Thanks for having me here, Gabi! And so glad you enjoyed Biscuit. .Sisters in Crime New England is the reason this series was born. My agent, John Talbot, contacted then-president Sheila Connolly looking for writers to develop cozy proposals. She put the call out to the entire membership and I was one of the writers who responded. We talked about my interests and how we could turn that into an idea that would sell and came up with gourmet pet food. I wrote a proposal and it sold less than two months later, and that was where it all started!
GC: Writing a series must be a little like writing a soap opera, in the sense that you have to have an underlying storyline that continues from book to book. How hard has it been to come up with a cliff-hanger at the end of a book?
LM: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Stan’s character arc – to me, it’s just as important as the mysteries. So as Stan makes the transition from corporate girl to taking ownership of her business and her life in ways she never really has, she’s growing and changing all the time. She’s looking very closely at relationships in her life, ending some, making new ones, revisiting family issues. The cliffhangers have come from those explorations, and to my delight they’ve manifested quite nicely in each book (so far!).
GC: I know you have another career that must take up quite a bit of your time. How on earth do you find time to get the books written?
LM: That’s a great question! I’ll let you know when I figure out a good answer….
I am on a constant quest to improve my time management skills, and also to be more of a plotter than a pantser. (For those of you not familiar with the terms, plotters plan out the book in advance while pantsers write into the headlights!) I’ve gotten better at that, mainly because deadlines are a great time management boost, but also because I discovered a fabulous book about plotting that’s changed my life. Plot Perfect by Paula Munier – if you’re a writer, buy it! It gives you an easy-to-follow guide to creating your story that makes a ton of sense. I can’t recommend it enough. And even for a pantser like me, sketching out the big picture has made a big difference in focusing my time and attention.
GC: Who writes the recipes for the pet treats?
LM: For the first book, I muddled through the recipes. I didn’t love it, largely because I felt very time-crunched because of the reasons above. Then as I was getting into the second book, fate brought The Big Biscuit into my life. It’s a pet food bakery in Franklin, MA and the owner at the time agreed to become my consultant and provided me with recipes. When he sold the business to his baker, she agreed to keep up the tradition. The treats are lovely and I know they’re healthy, just like Stan wants!
GC: Your heroine is called Stan. How did you come up with that name? And, of course, what’s in store for our heroine Stan in the future?
LM: In a previous iteration of my day job, I was asked to do a colleague a favor during a business trip and get a video of someone in a field office. My colleague didn’t tell me anything about this person, just to “call Stan.” When I called Stan, I expected an older, balding man smoking a cigar on the other end of the line. Instead I got a young blond woman, and I thought, Wow! What a great nickname for a woman to catch people off guard. So I stole it!
In the future, I expect to see Stan evolving more as her own person and businesswoman. In Murder Most Finicky, coming out in December, she’s still navigating the idea of what working for herself looks like after a celebrity chef sets his sights on her as the next big thing. This book was a lot of fun to write. Stan’s stepped out of Frog Ledge in this one, and takes a trip to her home state of Rhode Island where her family is unexpectedly involved in the murder that unfolds.
Stan will also continue to figure out her personal relationships, both with her family and with Jake. I’m excited to see how that will evolve as she starts to take down the carefully-constructed walls she built over the years to focus on external success. She’s really come a long way. I’m proud of her!
Like me, Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London, not far from where I lived, as it happens. He lives in the US now, and I met him at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, where he was giving a talk on how to write crime novels. I wanted to read one of his books immediately, because he made me laugh. I know you’re thinking it’s all about that British sense of humor, but I think you’ll find his mysteries, which take place in London, refreshing and a bit off-beat. Being a person who likes to start a series at the beginning, I read his first book, An Embarrassment of Corpses, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve got the next two sitting on my electronic To Be Read pile.
And if you want a taste of his sense of humor, you could do worse than check out his blog.
GC: When did you start writing novels, and what made you choose crime as your genre?
AB: I dedicated my most recent book, This Private Plot, to my late parents, and I note there that my mother started it all by giving me The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot whodunit) when I was twelve. I reconnected with the world of crime as a college student when I read P.D. James’s Death of an Expert Witness, having heard it reviewed on the BBC. And after a couple of misguided attempts at get-rich-quick screenplays with friends, I switched my mystery-reading habit to a mystery-writing habit when I settled down to write my first novel, A Nasty Little Murder. Never heard of it? It’s crap, and it was rightly never published, despite being shunted around several British publishing houses. But it taught me what voice not to use.
GC: Do your fans love your books more for your characters and plot, or for your sense of humor?
AB: From the letters and emails I get, it’s clearly the characters, which is the way it should be. Plot and humor should flow from characters and their situations – or at least look like they do by the time you’re finished. Although I am pleased when readers note that there is, in fact, a plot, and I hope a good one. I’m writing a mystery, not a soap opera.
GC: How did you come up with the extraordinary names of your characters?
AB: I found several of them in the old four-volume London telephone directory. “Strongitharm” – presumably a contraction of “Strong in the arm” – which is the name of one of my lead characters, came from those. Ever since I was young, I’ve kept notes of good names, or words that aren’t typically names but could be – belfry, welkin, moldwarp, mormal. The last review of This Private Plot that I posted on my blog was by the magnificently named Sue Millinocket. That’s going on the list. There are also a few bad jokes shoved in (Mark Sandys-Penza? Hoo, Watt and Eidenau? I mean, come on), including a particularly filthy one in the name of the company Oliver works for in the first book. Nobody’s noticed so far. (GC: Must go back and look…)
GC: Of all the characters in all the novels, which is your favorite?
AB: Effie. They’re called the “Oliver Swithin” mysteries, but she’s almost the co-hero. Effie Strongitharm is Oliver’s girlfriend, but also a Scotland Yard detective sergeant, who works for Oliver’s uncle. I work harder on Effie, because it’s a challenge for a male writer to create a convincing female character, especially a woman working in a sexist, male-dominated environment like the police. Her appearance, especially her unruly hair, is based on that of a much-loved girlfriend from my teenage years (who tolerates her fictional incarnation), but her character is every woman I’ve ever loved, and her insecurities are probably mine.
GC: How much promotion did you have to do once your books were published? And what’s the most effective way to promote a book, in your view?
AB: How much did I do? Not enough. It’s never enough, these days. I have a blog, I contribute to other people’s blogs, I do signings and readings . . . Still not enough. I think I’m destined to be a boutique. Maybe it’s enough to have a few devoted fans. One of them even tattooed my initials on her back. (If you’re reading this, hi Rebecca!)
GC: What’s in the works? More of our hero, Oliver Swithin?
AB: I’ve started the next Oliver Swithin novel. I’ve also had a non-Swithinian short story published, one that started out as a romance, but inevitably became a mystery. But the past year has thrown up a few distractions, some good, some bad, so I don’t currently have a good chunk of writing time on my schedule. This will, of course, all change as soon as someone offers me a couple of million for the screen rights to An Embarrassment of Corpses, or the BBC decide the Swithin series is a worthy successor to “Lewis” or “Midsomer Murders.”