Friday, July 21, 2017

Examining the Past

by Linda Rodriguez

We are preparing for the early-August final walk-through prior to selling our big house and moving to our new, drastically smaller home in early September. I've been decluttering and downsizing my home of 42 years for months now—in the midst of final cancer treatments, multitudes of writing/ editing/ teaching deadlines, and the vicissitudes of daily life. So it's no surprise that I've been revisiting the past lately as I sort through family belongings and oh-so-many papers.

The first thing that catches my eye is that I used to do so much. It feels like I'm constantly busy now, but I've had to learn to slow down and say, “no,” because of autoimmune disease and cancer. My schedule now, packed with deadlines as it is, is nothing compared to the schedules I used to keep twenty years ago with a demanding full-time job in higher education administration, lucrative fiberart and writing commissions on the side, almost a full-time job as a community volunteer (at one point, I sat on almost 30 boards), and a grade-schooler, two young adults, and a husband to take care of at home.

I look at a week's schedule printed out, hour-by-hour, to send to my boss to show that I really couldn't take on the major project he wanted me to lead, and I shake my head at days that run from 6:00 a.m. breakfast meetings to late-night meetings after an evening event with every hour in between packed with meetings, activities, and events. (Spoiler: I gave in and added that requested project to my already bursting-at-the-seams calendar.) What I can't figure out is how I planned all the programs and wrote all the speeches, reports, and articles with days like that. Then, I read a note from one of my graduate interns, joking about a wee-hours assignment email—“Do you ever sleep?”

Suddenly, I remember that feeling of running constantly on just a couple of hours of sleep a night. That feeling of being always a few steps short of complete collapse whenever the adrenaline would run out. Those were crazy times—immensely productive but absolutely mad. It's probably no wonder that I developed a couple of autoimmune diseases, which are often triggered by constant stress for too long a period.

I'm locked in another stressful period now, as I attempt to clear my house of its decades-long collection of family heirlooms and detritus, so I can start packing for the move to the new home. It has seemed a Sisyphean task, at moments, as I've tried to fulfill other obligations at the same time, but I've made a point of trying to ensure a decent night's sleep along the way, and now, the end is finally in sight. Age brings with it some basic sense and the realization that we must take care of our bodies and minds if we don't want them to rebel against us. Now, I couldn't handle a schedule like that weekly one I found among my papers, and rather than feeling sorry for that, I'm glad I've become smart enough not to try.

Have you had crazy busy times in your life? Do you find, as you grow older, that you are much more willing to say, “no,” and set firm limits?

Linda Rodriguez's Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, are her newest books. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in autumn, 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Making Hay

By Cathy Perkins

It's hay making season in our mountain valley. The process is interesting, even if it does play havoc with my husband's allergies. One of the things that surprised me, though, was the parallels I saw between making hay and writing. 

Stay with me. 

Let's look at the hay process first. There are three basic requirements for growing hay: land, water and sun. Lots of each one. Once the grass reaches the right stage—tall, but not gone to seed—the ranchers start watching the weather even closer than they usually do. Hoping the forecast holds, they cut the grass in wide swathes and let it dry. 

Over the next few days, the ranchers fluff—okay, the technical term is swath—the hay so it dries evenly. Once the hay is dry, they can bail it into bricks that litter the field at regular intervals. 

This year's first cutting looked terrific and the initial bids from Japan were $300/ton. The earliest cutters started bailing and there was happiness in the valley. 

Then the unexpected happened. A storm boiled over the Cascades and drenched the valley. All the grass still on the ground went from being prime hay to cattle feed—not even dairy cow feed—at a price that will barely cover the expense of bailing it. 

As soon as the sun reappeared and dried things out, the ranchers fluffed what was there and prepared to get it out of the field and make way for the next crop. 

There are other ways things can go wrong. Balers break and things get stuck. Weeds invade from untended land. But the men and women who ranch for a living keep going, raising hay for their horses and other people's cows. 

So how is any of that like writing? 

Well, you start with three basic ingredients to create a story: writer, imagination and paper—lots of each one. The author nurtures the story to The End and fluffs and cuts and edits, hoping for that premium bid for the manuscript. But things outside the author's control can ruin that venture. A decision somewhere else that Steampunk/Chick Lit/Romantic Suspense/Whatever is “dead” means that particular manuscript isn't going anywhere except a closest or thumb drive. (Hmm... considering indie-pubbing yet?) 

Like a bale in the baler, words can get stuck. It's much harder to find a repair person for a broken or missing muse than a clogged machine. 

Like the rancher, the writer keeps putting words on the page, creating stories, because that's what writers do. 

 Can you think of any other parallels?

An award-winning author of financial mysteries, Cathy Perkins writes twisting dark suspense and light amateur sleuth stories.  When not writing, she battles with the beavers over the pond height or heads out on another travel adventure. She lives in Washington with her husband, children, several dogs and the resident deer herd.
Her latest release is Double Down, a mystery novella in the So About... series 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Thrilling Lee Child

By Kay Kendall

When my first mystery was months away from publication, other writers suggested I should attend ThrillerFest, the high powered writers’ conference held every July in New York City. I protested that a) I don’t write thrillers, and b) that conference was pricy. Then I was told that International Thriller Writers, the group that holds the annual meeting, has a special program for debut authors that helps put newbies on the map. I was persuaded to attend, thinking I would go only once in order to participate in that program.
Janet Maslin of the NY Times interviews ThrillerMaster Lee Child.
That was back in 2013, and I have just returned from my fifth ThrillerFest in a row. Yes, I got hooked, pure and simple. The authorial fire power at ThrillerFest can’t be equaled, and contrary to its name, the International Thriller Writers do welcome authors across the full spectrum of crime writing. Whether you write cozy mysteries, true thrillers, traditionals, historicals, suspense, or whatever. It does not matter. All are welcome.
An awards banquet concludes each conference. Besides handing out six book awards, ITW honors one author who is deemed the year’s ThrillerMaster. Beginning in 2006 when the conference debuted, in chronological order the honorees were Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Sandra Brown, David Morrell, Ken Follett, R.L. Stine, Jack Higgins, Anne Rice, Scott Turow, Nelson DeMille, Heather Graham, and—this year—Lee Child. Also part of the hoopla centering on the ThrillerMaster is an hour-long interview by another notable person. This year Lee Child was interviewed by Janet Maslin, long-time film critic (1977-1999) and book reviewer (1999 on) for the New York Times 
If you aren’t up on your thrillers, here is some background about the suave and ever-genial Lee Child, who hails from Coventry, England. Although a resident of New York since 1998, he has not lost his gorgeous British accent—or his elegant manners either, for that matter. Within the thriller/mystery writing community, his name is a watchword for bestseller-dom. In fact, his twenty-one novels starring the tall, sexy drifter Jack Reacher are so popular that I was shocked that Lee Child had not been named an ITW ThrillerMaster years earlier.
Near the beginning of his interview with Janet Maslin, Child announced that he had become eligible for the award only three months previously. There was a twenty-year rule that explained everything, one I had not known about. His twenty-second Reacher novel is due out in the fall, and two popular films featuring actor Tom Cruise as the legendarily tall Jack Reacher have been produced. I will never forget when the news first broke that Cruise would play Reacher. Much consternation ensued. Cruise is known to be well under six feet tall. Reacher is described in book after book as six feet five, weighing 220 pounds, with a chest expanse of 50 inches. To note: Child himself is six feet five, but his frame is rail-thin. .
Lee Child says he tires of being asked about the choice of Cruise, but his ire is never evident.  Which is a good thing. At the awards banquet, two thriller authors performed a mashup of Beatles songs with lyrics restyled to fit known events in the life and career of Child. The medley opened with “Tiny Jack Reacher” sung to the tune of “Paperback Writer.” This performance brought down the house. And Lee Child smiled through it all. He also gave everyone in attendance a hardback of collected Jack Reacher short stories that debuted just this month. Now that’s what I call class.
Read the first 20 pages of Kay Kendall’s second mystery,
That book won two awards at the Killer Nashville
conference in August 2016—for best mystery/crime and also for best book. 
Her first novel about Austin Starr‘s sleuthing,
DESOLATION ROW, was a finalist for best mystery
at Killer Nashville in 2014. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Heroes Vs Villians

by J.M. Phillippe

There is a saying that no villain really knows that they are a villain. We are all heroes in our own minds. But in fiction, it is also often true that heroes don't know they are heroes. They resist the title. They push back against the events that would take them to heroic destiny. The good ones, the ones we relate to most, never really feel heroic so much as overwhelmed by the circumstances they face.

I have broken the main rule of the Internet: never read the comments. In reading the comments I find, over and over again, people so opposed to each other, they resort to insults, each side assuming the other is the biased one, the stupid one, the one who refuses to get it (or is incapable of getting it). Each side has painted theirs as the one full of heroes, the other the one full of villains.

How can this be?

It is enough to give me pause and wonder how I see myself, how I live my life, even how I write my characters. How have I decided what is heroic and what is villainous? What criteria was I using and why was I so sure I could tell the one from the other?

Maybe it was just circumstance -- the heroes had the most bad things happening to them. Maybe it was just perspective. The heroes are the ones that get the most time spent on their thoughts, feelings, and motives. Heroes are the ones whose pain audiences are supposed to relate to, their reactions more justified, their mistakes made smaller with familiarity. They are allowed remorse, guilt, shame, and insecurity. They are the ones fighting for hope.

Or maybe it's just about likability. Heroes are the ones we like -- they have the charm, the talent, the special magical ability to make audiences want to find out more. 

If I can't say for sure which characters I have created are truly heroic, how can I say which people in life are truly villainous? Particularly when people on both sides are so determined that theirs is the side to be on?

After much thought and consideration, I finally came up with the only definition (and a working one at that) which could even start to help me make sense of the world: heroes are the ones that are willing to admit they are wrong, and they are the ones most likely to change and grow over time. Heroes are the ones looking to be redeemed, in whatever way they feel they need to be. Villains are the ones who aggressively refuse to change.

It's not a perfect definition, and the distinction between heroes and villains, as much as there is one, is, I'm sure, much more nuanced than can be contained in one simple line (or three). But I need some measure, some way to determine if I actually really am on the right side, something that isn't an appeal to authority or tradition. I need to know that flawed people can be heroic, and that not all villains have to stay that way.

Because the truth is that things in the world often feel very overwhelming. Life often feels full of obstacles I feel less than equipped to overcome. And I don't feel like a hero. Yet I also know my thoughts and views have easily painted as me someone else's villain. It gets murky, here the middle, in the real world, away from fiction (and non-fiction) organizing events to make one side seem better than the other. It's hard to know what side I stand on, and I suppose throughout my life I will flit from the heroic to the villainous and back again, depending on circumstance, perspective, and context. Just because I think I'm right doesn't necessarily mean that I am. 

I'm prepared to be wrong though. And I think that is a good sign that maybe, just maybe, I lean toward the heroic. At least, that's what I hope. 


J.M. Phillippe is the author of Perfect Likeness and the short story The Sight. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a family therapist in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free-time decorating her tiny apartment to her cat Oscar Wilde’s liking, drinking cider at her favorite British-style pub, and training to be the next Karate Kid, one wax-on at a time.