Sunday, January 28, 2018


A few years ago, I was asked to facilitate a workshop for people interested in writing fiction. The plan was to offer 3 segments of 90 minutes to give examples and discuss various aspects of crafting a good story. I covered topics including characters, dialogue, conflicts, and settings.  By the end of the third session, about a dozen people had been there each week.  When I told them we were done, they barred the door and begged for more. 

What was supposed to last 3 weeks went on for more than two years. And even with my departure from the group, it’s still going strong. Several people have even submitted stories and poems for publication. That’s saying a lot. 

I’ve been interested in writing for a long time. But it was only in the last eight or ten years that I got serious about it. So through trial and error and multiple revisions, I learned what works for me. The idea of sharing that information was a no brainer. Telling others might save someone else a few weeks or months of work.  Hell, even dealing with rejection was part of the experience. It taught me to have a backup plan. 

Yesterday I received a pleasant surprise in the mail. Members of the old workshop group have gone so far as to name it and had membership cards printed. They sent me one, certifying me as a member of “The Stormy Night Writer’s Society”.  I’d shared a short story with then that began with the crazy line, “It was a dark and stormy night. No, really it was.”  

So if you have knowledge or a talent, it’s good to share. You just never know where it might lead. Because you never know who you might inspire, or where that may lead.

Here’s an excerpt from “Why 319?” that kind of fits the bill.  In this scene, Chene has gone back to the apartment of the latest homicide victim where he encounters Simone, the roommate, who is still dealing with the sudden death of her friend. Chene senses she needs attention, but Chene takes a different approach.

I went into the kitchen. The muffin tin she had used yesterday morning was still sitting on the counter, residue from the batter stuck hard to the surface. There were four fingers worth of cold coffee in the pot. I sensed she hadn’t eaten since we’d been here.

Back in the living room, Simone stared vacantly at the windows. I’m no therapist, but even I could tell that her body would start shutting down if she couldn’t get past this point. She would also need fuel in her system. I turned back to the kitchen to check the supplies.

What the hell was I doing here?

The kitchen was surprisingly well stocked. I would have expected two young, single women sharing an apartment to eat out frequently. Apparently, one of them liked to cook. I found some boneless chicken breasts in the refrigerator, along with a fresh box of mushrooms. There was a lemon just starting to shrivel and a bottle of Chardonnay already opened. Hunting around, I discovered a bin with flour and some linguini noodles. I got started.

After slicing the chicken into thin strips, I dredged it in flour. The skillet was heated with a chunk of butter slowly melting in the center. I added the chicken and sliced the mushrooms. While it was browning, I found a pot for the pasta and got that boiling. With the chicken brown on both sides, I added the mushrooms, the juice from half the lemon and a generous glug of wine. I found a small skillet and used it to sauté some onions and minced garlic in a few spoons of olive oil. When the pasta was done, I drained it, then tossed it in the oil mixture. I was serving it onto a platter when Simone appeared in the doorway.

“You’re cooking?” Her voice was incredulous.

“Somebody’s got to. I’m betting you haven’t eaten since Friday night.”

She shrugged. “I haven’t had much of an appetite.”

I guided her to the table and set a plate in front of her. She looked at me suspiciously. 

“It’s comfort food.”

“What is it?”

“Chicken piccata and pasta with olive oil and garlic.”

Simone tentatively tried a bite. I poured her a glass of wine and set it beside her plate. She chewed thoughtfully, then washed it down with a sip of wine. I didn’t say a word while she speared another piece of chicken. I tested it, then watched her try the pasta. Apparently, her body was responding to the food.

“This is really good. I wouldn’t have expected a cop to cook.”

It was my turn to shrug. “I like to eat. Restaurant food gets boring all the time.”

It took a while, but she ate everything I’d put in front of her. She drained the wine, then sat back, looking at me.

There's been a lot of classic Motown songs coming up on the stereo.  This is one of my favorites from Marvin Gaye.  Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Third Rail

I am a book junkie.  No surprise really. Most authors believe that if you want to be any good as a writer, you gotta read the work of others.  As a kid I devoured a wide variety of books, but something about crime and mystery always captured my attention. When the teenage years arrived, one of my favorites was the great John D. MacDonald. A few years later I stumbled upon Elmore Leonard whose sharp criminals and twisted methods captured my imagination. That’s when the idea of writing my own stories probably began.

Nowadays I read mostly mysteries. Michael Connelly, John Sandford, Lee Child and Robert Crais are always close at hand. Thrillers from James Rollins, and Greg Iles follow.  If my mood calls for something darker, there’s Stephen King and Joe Hill.

Right now I’m about a quarter of the way into Hill’s novel “Horns” and it’s moving right along.  Then I read this passage. 

   “…Lee would learn the truth about music; that it was the third rail of life. You grabbed it to shock yourself out of the dull drag of hours, to feel something, to burn with all the emotions you didn’t get to experience in the ordinary run of school and TV and loading the dishwasher after dinner.”

My first reaction?  Damn, that’s exactly right!  Hill captured the essence of how important music is.  It’s always been a part of me. When I’m writing, the stereo is on or Pandora is cued up, bringing a variety that energizes me.  And it’s not uncommon for me to incorporate songs into the stories I’m writing. Music is indeed the third rail. It’s there for my characters as well as me. Ya gotta have it.

So thanks to Joe Hill for so adroitly describing it.  And if you’re interested in something a little different, check out his site.

Here’s an excerpt from “Fleeing Beauty” where the music is just a subtle mention in the background, but it gives a clue about the character.  In this scene, Jamie and Ian, a young friend who is helping her with project, are visiting an artist whose studio is in the same building as her late father's.

Ian led the way upstairs. We found Odon Krippendore’s studio at the opposite end of the hallway on the third floor.  He had a large space divided in half. One side was the gallery, where many of his finished pieces were displayed on easels and framed on the wall. The other side was his studio, where the natural lighting was the best. Sinatra was singing softly from an old stereo tucked in the corner. Krip was working on an abstract painting. A broad smile lit his face when he saw us. He dropped his brush in a jar of paint thinner.

“It’s Jamie and the young apprentice!  Come in if you can stand the fumes of paint and turpentine!”

“This is quite a setup, Krip,” I said, doing a slow turnaround.

“That it is. Come on the other side, it’s far more comfortable.”  He led us to the gallery, where a battered loveseat and chair commanded a view of his efforts. 

I spent a few minutes bringing him up to date. Ian moved slowly along the wall, gazing at the paintings on display.  There was a small portrait, maybe an eight-by-ten, in a thin wooden frame down near the corner that held his attention for a while. I watched him start to move away, then go back to it.  He turned and waved me over.

It looked like the same woman who had posed for the Fleeing Beauty statue. Krip appeared beside me, staring wistfully at the painting.

“She’s the love of my life.”

Here's a favorite Sinatra song.  Hope you enjoy it. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Whatcha Know

Not so long ago, I had the great good fortune to be part of a writer’s workshop. While the numbers fluctuated each month, there was a core group of very dedicated, talented people who came together with one thing in mind. Becoming better writers. Our backgrounds were dramatically different.  So were the type of stories we were creating. 

Since some of my efforts have been published, they often turned to me with questions. I told them up front that my knowledge was limited, based merely on what worked for me. But we often discussed topics such as creating characters, polishing dialogue, and enhancing conflicts. 

Earlier today I received a message from one of the group. Even though I’m no longer part of that action, it’s a pleasure to keep in touch. And that message reminded me of one session when someone stated ‘You should write whatcha know.’  The ensuing laughter ran for several minutes. 

I write mysteries. They have always intrigued me. Following the clues, uncovering motives, spinning theories.  But I’ve never solved a crime. I’ve been in a few police stations for visits and tours (never in handcuffs, thank you very much) and did a ride along with a state trooper while researching “Devious”.  I’ve met a number of police officers and a couple of FBI agents over the years. On occasion, I may pick their brains. But do I know exactly what goes on in an investigation? Not hardly.

That’s where imagination comes in. A germ of an idea starts the process and begins to percolate. With a little nurturing and prodding, it may lead to something bigger. Or it may fizzle out. You never can tell.

Write whatcha know?  That sounds like flirting with disaster.  I’ll just keep making it up as I go along.

Here’s an excerpt from “Devious” that fits the bill.  In this scene, Jamie and Malone are still getting to know each other.

It was after ten when we went out for breakfast. My cupboards were barren. I promised Malone I'd go grocery shopping today. Over waffles and bacon, he caught me staring at him. I was having grapefruit and coffee. I was willing to control one appetite while the other was being satiated.
"What's on your mind, Jamie?"
"I don't know where to start."
"Make believe it's a book. Try the beginning."
I laughed. "I never start at the beginning. I usually work from the middle, then write the ending and work backwards."
"Okay, start in the middle." I noticed the twinkle had returned to his eyes when he smiled.
"Let's start with you. Do you realize, it's been two weeks since we’ve been seeing each other, and I know more about my dry cleaner than I do about you?" I swiped a piece of bacon from his plate, hoping he wouldn't notice.
"What do you want to know?" He motioned the waitress over to refill our coffees.
"Everything, Malone, I don't even know your first name."
"What’s in a name?” His eyes were turning me on, making it difficult to sit still. “Does it really matter?”
"I guess not."
He chuckled. "How about if I give you a profile? I'm forty-two, divorced, no kids, like skiing, sailing, baseball and football. I've been a state trooper for seventeen years and never wanted to be anything else. I like classical music but not opera, jazz but not reggae. Don't even mention rap. I prefer to sleep in the raw.  I drink coffee black, without any fruity flavors in it. Good enough?"
Some profile. My character sketches are more detailed than that. "For now. But you still didn't tell me your name."
"I only use Malone. Your turn."
"For what?"
"Your profile. Pretend it's for a famous magazine ad." He held his coffee cup in both hands as he sipped, letting the steam rise before his eyes.
"Okay. I'm thirty-one, never been married, seven kids by seven different men, I like opera and reggae and some rap. I like almost all sports. I have a degree in journalism. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer. I don’t even know where my diploma is. I’m a packrat, but when the seasons change, I make it a point to throw stuff out, like old boyfriends, and get organized.”
The look on his face was a cross between disgust and humor. "Rap music?”
"Some of it’s good.”
"How’d you get the scar on your stomach?"
"Appendix burst when I was a kid." I got serious after the waitress cleared away our dishes. "Tell me more about work. How long have you been on afternoons?"
“Three years. I like it. We can request any shift every three months, depending on seniority. I prefer the afternoon slot. It gives me the mornings and early afternoons free. Sometimes we work seven or eight days straight. But every third weekend, I get four days off in a row.” Malone settled back against the chair and watched me.
“What about court appearances?”
He shrugged. “We go whenever the judge requests us. There is overtime pay for anything not part of your regular shift.”
“What was the big meeting about yesterday with Nowalski?” It felt funny referring to Bert by his last name. As far as I knew, Malone was still unaware of my relationship with his boss. For now, I wanted to keep it that way.
Malone’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You don’t miss much, do you sister?”
“Not if I want to do my job well.

There must be music. While I didn't originally have a song in mind, this one seems appropriate, particularly since I mentioned it above.  Here's Molly Hatchet with an rock and roll hit.