Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Never Fancied Myself a Romantic Suspense Author, by Misa Ramirez

I started out writing middle grade fiction (the wonderful Ellis Island time travel story is tucked away somewhere in my study...perhaps to be resurrected one day) and moved on to children’s books. I was teaching at the time, so my head was in kid-land.

But after one fluke sale of a picture book story, I couldn’t sell another kids story to save my life.

Enter Lola.

Every Monday night, I’d been meeting with a friend at a coffee shop, as much to get out of the house and away from the kids (new baby and 4 others at home) as to write. My frustration at the pile of rejections was growing. I decided I needed a change. I decided to write something for adults. It would be fun and sassy, would have swearing and, egads!, sex.

Lola Cruz came to me just like that. It was like she was there all along, just waiting for me to call on her. I like to say she’s my alter-ego, if I were a smart, sexy, Latina detective. ;) My husband is Mexican and I’ve always loved his culture. The food, the language, the community, the stories and legends, and more. So when I envisioned Lola, she represented my own children in a way.

After the first couple Lola books sold, I was at a crossroads. What to work on next?

I couldn’t imagine not incorporating some cultural element into whatever book I write (funny, since I’m a blonde-haired, green-eyed white girl!). The thing that popped into my mind was the story of la Llorona. La Llorona is kind of like the Bogey Man. It’s a story told to kids to keep them in bed.

That quintessential ghost story, Latino-style. My husband’s family would tell this story at camp outs, just as it had been told to them when they were kids.

I did a little research and learned the roots of the story. It dates back to the Aztecs, interestingly, and from there, four different versions evolved. The story in my head took roots and grew. But la Llorona is a ghost, and not a nice one, at that. My light, sassy voice had to adapt. The only way it would work was as a romantic suspense. I couldn’t see myself spending my entire writing career crafting suspense. There’s enough darkness in the world that I don’t want to write about it, too (light mysteries, like Lola Cruz, and my new cozy series don’t make me feel that darkness, interestingly).

But this story wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote it. It became CURSED.

Buy Cursed for your Kindle!

Buy Cursed at The Reader Store!

The hero, Ray Vargas, had a brother, Vic. He needed his own story. The other thing that fascinates me is the curandera, a healer. Combine that with the urban legend of chupacabra (a vampire goat-like creature), and the makings of another story began. Same town. Another legend come to life. When I read a real-life account of a tree that had been saved from disease by the chain strung around it’s trunk, I knew I had stumbled upon a crucial and symbolic element.

That book became The Chain Tree.

Buy The Chain Tree for your Kindle!

Buy The Chain Tree at The Reader Store!

They’re out now in e-book form and I’m so excited! I wonder if others will find the legends of la Llorona and chupacabra as fascinating as I do. I hope so! If you have an e-reader, I hope you’ll give them a whirl and let me know your thoughts. I have a third story brewing based on yet another Mexican legend. Who knows, maybe two will become three: The Legends Trilogy.

Now, I have to go buy an e-reader so I can download my own books!

Happy e-reading!

~ MIsa

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I'm Scared!

A recent New York Times article discussed how the typical American parent is more concerned by threats to their children that are unlikely, e.g. terrorism, than threats to their children that are more dangerous and likely, e.g. obesity. That got me thinking: what are the things that I worry about when it comes to my children?

1. I worry that the cleats that I just bought child #2 will not fit in two weeks. Why? Because this has happened repeatedly. Every time a new pair of footwear is purchased—and tween footwear is not inexpensive—it is only a matter of weeks before said tween is crying, “These are too tight!” I didn’t marry Paul Bunyan and no, child #2 does not have some kind of accelerated growing disease. But boy, are his feet going to be huge. I worry about that. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Some women love a man with big feet.

2. I worry that my children will get scurvy. As much as they hate broccoli, brussel sprouts, and every other cancer-fighting vegetable that I serve nightly, they hate citrus fruits even more. As a result, I don’t even bother buying oranges. Every year for the holidays, however, some kind parent of one of hubby’s students will send a great, giant gift basket full of Florida grapefruits and oranges and I will hold them aloft, touting their restorative and scurvy-fighting powers. I will even employ a pirate accent to make my point and note how many pirates died on the high seas as a result of this nearly-eradicated disease. The kids hide until I stop speaking like Blackbeard. And then, with great sadness, I will parcel out the grapefruits and oranges to neighbors and friends who all proclaim that their kids “eat them up!” which makes me feel even worse.

3. I worry that their rooms are not clean enough so that after they have recovered from scurvy, they will get black lung disease. I made a conscious decision years ago that the kids were responsible for the cleanliness of their rooms. That should give you a mental picture of what their rooms look like. Granted, child #1 is a little better than child #2 in keeping things neat and tidy, but let’s face it: how many kids are going to pull their beds, dressers, and desks away from the wall to check to see how much dust has accumulated back there? Not too many, I suspect. Therefore, every few months or so, I take it upon myself to do just that. And what I find is not pretty. I have the pediatrician on speed dial just in case black lung becomes an issue because what I find behind the furniture looks very similar to what is found in coal mines, and that, my friends, is something that keeps me up at night. It doesn’t spur me to clean any more than I do; let’s be realistic here.

4. I worry that the rats will return and when they do, they’ll travel through the heating ducts and end up in their bedrooms. You remember the Great Rat Infestation of 2010? Well, I spend our good, hard-earned money every month on Tom, the Rat Whisperer, making sure that they don’t come back. But having done a little research on the habits of our furry, rodent friends, I have learned that they are intrepid. That is, they can scurry willy-nilly throughout your house, generally behind the walls; all they need is a few inches and something to tempt them, like the remnants of half-eaten granola bars that are often found when I move the furniture from the wall in one or another child’s room. I’ve decided that rather than scare the children about wearing clean underwear in the event of getting hit by a bus (this was a favorite of my mother and grandmother), I’d rather scar them for life by telling tales of rats who entered a child’s room through a heat duct and spent the night foraging for food underneath the child’s bed. That oughta learn them, right?

I’ll end there, if only to give you a chance to call Child Protective Services on me.

What are some of your concerns, Stiletto friends?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Being a Writer Means to Me

First, I must say that as a writer I write. I have to write. There are times when I can't fit it in, usually because of family crisis or needs, but writing is what I want to do every day. I want to know what is going to happen to my characters and the only way to find out is to write about them.

Being a writer has also given me so much more than merely having my books published--though believe me, it's a thrill each time a new one comes out.

First and foremost are the friends that I've made because of writing--author friends and reader friends. I cherish each one of them. I think when I first realized how many friends I'd made was at a Bouchercon years ago and as I entered the area where the panels were being held I was greeted and hugged by one person after another.

Because of being a writer--and at the time I was an instructor for Writers Digest School--I was invited to be an instructor at the prestigious Maui Writers Conference which meant a free trip to Maui.

I've also been asked to speak at other writers conferences in many different places--and I love seeing new places and of course meeting new people. I also like to share what I know about writing and publishing with new writers.

Speaking of seeing new places, going to mystery and other writing cons has taken me to places I'd have never gone otherwise. Going to Mayhem in the Midlands made Omaha NE one of my favorite places. Last year, attending Epicon gave me the opportunity to see New Orleans.

I enjoy book festivals too and have my favorites. Hubby and I love to make jaunts to the coast and combining one with a book festival has become something we do often. We just returned from San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast Book Festival and a couple of weeks before we were at Nipomo's library book fest.

Next up is Bouchercon in San Francisco. I'm rooming with someone I haven't seen since I went with her to Edgar week in New York and on down to Malice Domestic in DC. That will be a fun reunion--and I'll be seeing a bunch of other friends too.

To sum it all up, being a writer has given me the opportunity to do so many things I would never have done otherwise--and it's not only been satisfying but lots of fun.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Update - The Chisholm Trail Book Festival

Evelyn David (i.e. Marian and I) attended two book festivals this month. I went to the one in Duncan, Oklahoma on September 18 and Marian went to Toms River, New Jersey on September 25th. These events were wonderful opportunities for both of us to connect with old and future readers of the Sullivan Investigation Mystery series. I'll let her tell you about the New Jersey event in upcoming blogs.

I attended The Chisholm Trail Book Festival in Duncan. This was my first trip to Duncan and it was about a 3 1/2 hour drive from my home in Muskogee. I arrived about 4 pm on Friday, the 17th and checked into a hotel near the event location. The sponsors of the festival had invited all the authors to attend a dinner that evening at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center. While waiting for dinner to be served, I avoided the sticky, 90 plus heat by touring the (fabulously air-conditioned) Heritage Center. The museum was a wonderful mix of prairie antiques and tv/movie memorabilia from iconic western films and series. One whole room was dedicated to Lonesome Dove, the book and tv miniseries. Large poster-sized stills from the mini-series covered the walls along with framed scripts and props. A flat screen television showed the movie in a continuous loop. I really wanted a Lonesome Dove coffee table book offered for sale in the gift store, but couldn't justify the cost. (And believe me I tried!)

The dinner was traditional cowboy fare - barbequed brisket, beans, fried potatoes, slaw, and biscuits - served from a chuck wagon. Live music was provided as we ate on a covered portico. Most of the authors present were from Oklahoma and Texas, and I used the dinner hour to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. The majority of the authors attending were historical, biographical, or Christian writers. They were very kind to let a mystery writer sit among them.

The next morning I had an hour to set up my table. The sponsors of the event had arranged for teens from the local school to help authors unload their cars and cart the materials into the event center. I can't tell you how impressed I was with this kindness. Four eighth-grade mystery fans helped me move boxes of books, framed poster, promo stuff, etc. from the parking lot to my assigned table. All of us had our hands full, so you can imagine how many trips it would have taken me to do it by myself.

A couple of hours after I settled in at my "crime scene"-themed table, I had to leave to present a workshop, "Clues to Writing a Mystery." My audience was a mix of teens and adults, all interested in the nuts and bolts (or should I say knives and guns?) of writing mysteries. Marian, who had reviewed my handouts for typos, had warned me I had enough material for a two-day class. She was right, but I was happy knowing I wouldn't run out of things to talk about.

While I was presenting the workshop, two of the young ladies who helped me earlier, manned my table, selling several books! I wish I had their help for all my events!

After lunch, which was sold conveniently right in the room where the book tables were located, I had a "mini-book-club" session. In other words, I read the opening scenes from Murder Off the Books. Reading aloud is not my favorite thing to do, but the audience was polite and clapped loudly when I finished a little early. They also asked lots of questions about publishers, agents, advances, and royalty payments. So maybe they weren't so much into the plot and my oratory skills. Sigh. I didn't mind though. I'm still new enough at this writing business to remember how confusing the publishing world was ... uh is.

FFA guys (Future Farmers of America) showed up to help me pack up my table and load my car. They were great! In fact the whole festival was incredibly "pro-author."

The 2011 Chisholm Trail Book Festival is already in the planning stages. For more information contact Lavon Strong at the Legacy Bank, 2100 N. Hwy. 81, Duncan, OK 73533.

aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bizzy Schmizzy

Rachel Brady

The busiest time of my life was the winter of 2006. There was my day job in the research lab at NASA. I taught three fitness classes each week in the evenings. I was on a home-cooking kick and spent inordinate amounts of time making up advance menus and shopping lists each week, plus making those meals. I had 5- and 3- year-old daughters, and a newborn son. I was a nursing mom. (Anyone who questions why that last part matters has never been the exclusive food source for another human being.) That year was my first triathlon season too. I did everything I could to participate in group workouts with my tri training team. And, I was finishing my first novel.

I'm tired just thinking about 2006.

The thing is, at the time it didn't occur to me that I was busy. In fact, I've been living more or less the same lifestyle since then, just with a different mix of "stuff," and I didn't figure out I was busy until earlier this year.

I began to understand it when, each time I went to my fridge to add something to the calendar, some other thing was already written there. These weren't always my events, either. My kids are 10, 8, and 4 now and have busier social lives than I do. Birthday parties, lessons, sports . . . you know the deal.

I decided to wipe my calendar. While I was at it, I wiped theirs too.

I dropped a few fitness classes. Vowed to take a one-year break from races. Didn't sign the kids up for sports or music lessons. (Still encouraged birthday parties, though. Those are fun.) I started saying no to requests to go to events I didn't want to attend. That was hard at first but got easier with practice.

My hiatus from Busy has fundamentally changed who I am. It afforded me an opportunity to really evaluate what is important to me. Strangely, my days are still full. Just with different things. Folks often say that if you haven't worn something in a year, you obviously don't miss it and should donate it. I think this is true for all our Busy Tasks too. Not doing some things I used to do, and not missing them, has made it pretty clear what I need in my life and what I don't.

Don't get me wrong. I still swim, bike, and run. I just don't pay $80 to do it on a specified Saturday morning with a number pinned to my shirt. And I still teach those fitness classes, just way less often. My kids are back in sports. Sometimes one or more of them decides to take a season off. That's fine.

The other day I asked myself what was most important to me. What things am I doing when I'm happiest? When I feel like the best person I can be? When I feel calm, or strong, or just when I feel like me?

It's a short list: Engage my kids. Read. Exercise.

So these are the things I do. I can't fit them all in, all the time, but you can bet I'll be doing any one of these things before I bog myself down with useless tasks that are only disguised as important.

I recently read an article on my favorite website, ZenHabits. Leo Babauta summed it up better than I ever could, and I hope you'll take a look.

My wish for the Stiletto Faithful is that we each determine what is most important to us and design a life centered on these joys.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Drive to Sell Books vs. Building Relationships, by Misa/Melissa

Sometimes you meet an author that just makes you scratch your head and go, “Huh. Glad she thinks she’s all that, because her attitude and people skills sure leave a lot to be desired.”

Then you meet an author who is the complete opposite. She’s friendly, gracious, enthusiastic, approachable, and seems to *get* that writing books, like so many other things, is about building relationships.

Okay, here’s the story. I run Books on the House, as many of you know. The site is going amazingly well. 10,000+ total visitors per week. 24,000+ total page views per week. Fantastic authors have signed on to be featured and to promote their books. These include the phenomenal Sarah Addison Allen, Lori Wilde, Ridley Pearson (who often writes with Dave Barry), Allison Brennan, our own Susan McBride, Jane Yolen (children’s book superstar), and so many more. They come on, their books are featured, they are featured, and at the end of the week, they give away a few copies of their book to the lucky winners for the week (all randomly chosen). Readers find new-to-them authors and books. Authors find potential new readership. Exposure is huge. It’s win-win.

Well, a while back, I happened to be talking with a writer who happens to share my agent. I’ll call her Writer A. I mentioned to Writer A that she should think about coming on Books on the House. I’d do a big splash for her and give her some upgrades (camaraderie and all that, right? Same agent! Mutual friend! Just reaching out to her...).

Her response was immediate and so dismissive that I was honestly stunned. She said, curtly, I might add, "Thanks, but no thanks." She’s made it a policy, she said, to never, ever give away free books.

This shocked me on a couple of levels. First, whether you’re a debut author or a multiple bestseller, I just think it’s a good idea to be friendly to other people. Life is all about building relationships. Without the people around us, the things in our life and what we go through cease to have meaning.

Being nice = good karma.

I didn’t care if this author came on Books on the House. I was simply offering her the opportunity, along with some freebies, because of our shared agent and a mutual friend. I know how hard it is to let readers know about your book which is why I created the site. I thought she might like exposure for her debut novel. She could have politely declined. Like I said, I didn’t care if she came on, I was just reaching out.

She could have handled it more professionally. She didn’t, and that rubbed me wrong.

The other issue I had with her response was her ‘policy’ to never give away a free book. SHOCKING!!! This business, now more than ever, is built on word of mouth. Authors receive FREE COPIES of their books for just this purpose. We should be giving them away to the press, to reviewers, and to avid readers in our target audience who will then spread the word. Again, good karma. This author’s philosophy is so vastly different from mine, I wanted to get other opinions. Your opinions Maybe I’m WAY off the mark.

I don’t think so, though. I come now to example 2. Hank Phillippi Ryan. Now, I admit, I haven’t read Hank’s books yet. I’ve had them on my ‘to buy’ list, but, shoot, there are, like 500 books on that list, and I don’t own a digital reading device yet, btw, so 500 books would take up WAY too much space.

But I digress.

Hank is on Books on the House right now. Her fourth book, Drive Time, just came out. When she contacted me, she was super enthusiastic, not about coming on my site to promote, but just about her books, about people discovering her books, and about making connections with readers. We talked on the phone and I liked her right off. She has that infectious personality that just makes you want to smile and spend time with her. I wish I could go visit Boston just to drop in on Hank!

Anyway, we worked together to come up with something different to really get people to interact on the site this week and boy has it been successful. First, we did a Skype interview (which is where I also discovered I REALLY respect Hank Phillippi Ryan). She’s smart, successful, driven, accomplished, caring, empathetic... I could go on, but I’ll leave you to watch the interview yourselves (Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan Part 1 and Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan Part 2). Did I mention she’s won, like, a boatload of Emmies for her investigative reporting? Warrior woman. I like it.

Hank wanted to do something fun for readers and to give many people the opportunity to win copies of her books. It wasn’t just about getting people to buy Drive Time. (On a side note, I’ve seen authors practically begging people to buy their books so they can keep writing. I cringe when I see this because, again, we have to build relationships FIRST and sell books SECOND.) Hank wants people to know about Charlotte McNally, her sleuth. She has something to say to her readers through her character and how better to introduce her character and books to people than by talking about them, loving them, and graciously giving away a few copies to avid readers? Actually, she’s giving away more than a few. One a day, plus a grand prize of the whole set. And she’s giving away a prize to commenters, something no one has done before on Books on the House. She’s interacting with the commenters, she’s talking to readers, and she’s building connections.

Her policy is to spread her books around, and I like that approach!

I tell you what, I was so enamored with Charlotte McNally (being of a certain age and trying to figure out what her future will be given her choice of career over romance) that I immediately went out and bought Prime Time, the first book Hank’s series.

Have I bought Writer A’s book? Nope. It sounds like it is a fun read, but I’ve not heard her talk about it, haven’t felt her love for her story or characters, and haven’t felt her love and respect for readers. All I’ve seen is her drive to sell books. Her ‘policy’ turned me off, quite frankly. She’s all about selling books, not building relationships.

Will I buy books from the other type of author I mentioned? Doubt it. I get that people want to write for a living. So do I. But when an author spends his or her time focusing on that, assuming that readers care whether or not he or she continues to write, I think they're missing the point. How can they care when they’ve not read the author's first book? And why will they read the first book if they know nothing about it, don’t feel his or her passion for the characters, their journey, or the themes he or she is compelled to write about? Again, all I’ve seen is a stifling drive to sell books, not build relationships with readers. I guess it can be a fine line, but it’s one I think authors need to be aware of.

I want to hear your thoughts. Should authors care more about building relationships with readers? As a reader, are you more drawn to an author who does this? As an author, how do you find balance between the drive to sell books and the desire to build relationships with readers?

Am I just plain loca?

Misa Ramirez/Melissa Bourbon

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cleaning Out the Closet

My husband remarked at dinner last night that my posts for the past several weeks have been more “serious.” Serious? You can’t be serious! So in an attempt to lighten things up a bit, I will return to what I know best: absurdity. Absurdity in the form of cleaning out one’s closet.

I get a hankering every now and again for complete and total order in the house. Yes, there is some deep psychological underpinning here but I have neither the time nor the financial resources to figure out what that underpinning might be. Heck, I have enough trouble struggling into my own personal underpinning—aka my bra—every day, so why delve into the psyche? Too much time, too much trouble, not enough money.

OK, where was I? Oh, right, back at the closet. Child #1 and I share a closet. As those of you who live in an old house know, closet space is at a premium. In this three-bedroom, nearly one-hundred-year old house, we have but three closets, and one of them is in the dining room. The other two are in the kids’ bedrooms, and are shared by the liked-gendered members of the family: Patrick/Jim, Dea/me. It is a struggle to keep our clothes unwrinkled and in some kind of orderly semblance when they are interspersed with those of the other inhabitants of the house. Suffice it to say, I have worn more than one un-ironed dress shirt to a business meeting that definitely has the smell of Eau de Field Hockey about it.

This past weekend, I pulled everything out the closet, which resides under the stairs to the attic. I found seventeen tote bags, three mismatched shoes, countless unpaired socks, two flower girl dried-flower wreaths, a box of beads, and a third-grade math workbook. Then, I set about pulling out every garment that I own and store in the closet. This unearthed one vintage mink jacket that my mother gave me (and believe me, I’m going to wear it the first chance I get; sorry, PETA), a size eight skirt (I must have had that since the sixth grade because I haven’t been a size eight since around 1975), and countless white dress shirts, the origin of which is unknown to me (I mostly wear pullovers and turtlenecks as I loathe looking down and seeing buttons stretched across my ample bosom).

Cleaning out your closet reveals all of the fashion errors that you have made and reminds you of what not to do in the future. I’m more Ethel Kennedy than Jackie Kennedy, albeit with fewer children, less money, and no hint of scandal surrounding me. As a result, I was surprised to find a pair of black pumps with a retro sixties’ feel and little bows on the toes. Was I channeling my inner Jackie when I bought those? What of the polka-dotted bolero jacket? Or the blazer with the Nehru collar? Or the gold silk chantung blouse that I wore once and didn’t even remember that I had?

I made some hard decisions regarding items that I had forgotten I had, crammed as they were in the back of the closet, but that I knew I wouldn’t wear again. I loaded up a bunch of items—four bags in all along with countless other things on hangars—and took them to Good Will, where the woman at the donation center eyed my cache with glee. It makes me happy to think that many of the things that I consider cast-offs—despite some being new and never used—would be sold at a fraction of their original price to someone who might get use and pleasure out of them.

Cleaning out the closet is a daunting task, but ultimately, a cathartic one. It’s interesting to take a trip down Fashion Memory Lane, but for me—someone who considers cleaning an extreme sport—it’s even more satisfying to see room where there used to be none.

Stiletto Faithful, does cleaning out the closet—either literally or figuratively—give you the joy it gives me? What treasures have you unearthed in your cleaning expeditions? Do tell! (P.S.--Pictures of me in the vintage mink jacket to come. Stay tuned.)

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

H'mmm, Does It Matter What the Author Looks Like?

On another blog I participate on, the question was about the author's looks and went on to whether or not people judged the book by the author's photo on the book.

The gals on this blog are not only much younger than I am but definitely much better looking, I hope no one holds that against me.

For one of my first books I had a glamor shot done--no feathers or tiaras--but someone did my make-up and I looked pretty good--not too much like the real me though. That same shot appeared on about three books--it didn't age, but I did.

I knew I had to quit using it when at a book event, someone would look at me, look at that picture and then back at me and ask, "Is this you?"

Now, when someone takes a casual photo of me that turns out pretty well, that might be the one I use for the book. One of my publishers puts my picture on a page on the inside of the back--do you suppose that's a message of some sort?

Not even a super photographer and air-brushing is going to change the fact that I'm a plump great-grandma who's been around for awhile.

Now if only someone could take a shot of my imagination and use that as my author photo, I know that would be far more interesting.

What's your opinion about authors' photographs? Would one ever make you change your mind about buying a book?


Monday, September 20, 2010

Has this ever happened to you?

The press is on fire about a new book. Your friends are falling all over themselves telling you that it’s a “must read.” So you dutifully pick up a copy and no matter how hard you try, you just don’t get it. You can barely get past the first ten pages, let alone finish the masterpiece. Then the second book in the series comes out, and the praise grows even louder. Year after year, the prolific author grinds out another story and somehow you can’t figure out what the buzz is all about.

I’ve got a pile of those mysteries on my nightstand. The ones that have captured the public’s affection – and left me scratching my head wondering how the author captured lightning in a bottle – and frustrated trying to figure out how I could do it too?

Now here’s the twist on that syndrome.

Sometimes, ten years after the initial tidal wave of public adoration has settled down, I’ll pick up a book by that same author whose prose left me snoring, and discover that actually I kind of like him, in fact, he’s pretty darn good. That’s what happened to me this weekend with Alexander McCall Smith.

I was wandering through the discount heaven, Home Goods, and found a copy of his tenth book, marked down to $2. Since it retails for $14 – I mean what could I do but buy it?

I liked it….I really liked it. And I immediately read the most recent book in the series and really liked it too. So now I’m starting the series from the beginning.

So what happened?

Did he become a better writer? Sure, to some extent, the more you write, the better your skills. But I don’t think that’s the answer.

Did I become a more sophisticated reader? I sure hope so, but that’s probably not the answer either.

OR, did watching the six-part series of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency make the characters leap off the page when I finally started reading the books? Did I need the visual landscape to enjoy the virtual one?

Most mystery writers I know play the casting game. They fantasize about the actors who would be perfect as their lead character. Rhonda and I agree that James Garner, circa The Rockford Files of 35 years ago, would be the ideal Mac Sullivan. We can’t agree on who would be best to play Rachel Brenner. Bravo to the casting agent who found Jill Scott to play Precious Ramotswe in the mini-series of Mr. McCall Smith’s books. Here’s an article by the director, the late Anthony Minghella, on the process of finding the right Precious, and the filming of the mini-series.

Years ago, my husband and I consulted an educational psychologist about one of our son’s reading habits – or lack thereof. He was about to enter high school and rarely, if ever, read for pleasure, and frankly, was barely reading the assigned school books. She recommended patience and permitting him to “preview” a book through a movie, if one were available. I thought it was “cheating” to watch the movie instead of the book, but her point was he should do both. It might make it easier for him to get into a book if he had some visual cues to the story. Long story short, pun intended, the psychologist was absolutely right. First, he matured which helped immensely. But through time, movies, and his own curiosity, he discovered the magic of books. I think that’s what happened to me and Mr. McCall Smith’s Botswana books. The beauty of the miniseries allowed me to understand and enjoy the beauty of the author’s words.

So I ask, Stiletto Faithful, have you ever discovered a literary gem, one you had previously discarded? What made the difference?

Marian aka the Northern half of Evelyn David

Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David
Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Drops the Ball by Evelyn David, Spring 2011

Friday, September 17, 2010

So You Want to Write About Your Life?

Top Writing Tips from Memoirist Theo Pauline Nestor

I’ve been writing about myself or wanting to write about myself since before I can remember. When I finally got into a creative writing program in my 30s, there was no “Creative Nonfiction” track or even a class on memoir writing, so I wrote highly autobiographical stories for my fiction class; but as Dave Eggers once said about fiction writing, I felt like I was “driving with a clown suit on.” After graduate school, I was a mother of two, mostly at home. I discovered a new magazine called Brain, Child, which was filled with creative nonfiction written by mothers. I soon started writing for this magazine and discovered that my true genre is memoir and have been writing that ever since. In 2008, my first full-length memoir, How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, was published by Crown.

When I’m not writing, I’m teaching a class called "Writing the Memoir" at the University of Washington and coaching individual writers. Many of the students who come to the class come with just a hazy idea that they want to write about their lives, and I love guiding them through the process of discovering what exactly they want and need to write about.

Here’s my best advice for getting started on memoir writing:
  • Read great memoirs—both those that are bestsellers and those that are critically acclaimed. If you want to write a memoir, you need to have a good sense of how they’re structured. If you want to sell a memoir, focus on reading popular memoirs published in the last five years. A few of the memoirs I recommend: The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, Lit by Mary Karr.

  • Carry a notebook, just a small one. I actually didn’t set out to write a memoir about my divorce, but I had this notebook in my purse, and I was so miserable that I started pulling it out and writing down random thoughts to keep myself from going crazy. The very first note I wrote down was about a woman in my attorney’s waiting room with hair so thin I could see her scalp and a big stack of legal papers on her lap. This brings me to my next point…

  • Get in the habit of taking your observations seriously. One of the differences between would-be writers and actual writers is that writers follow their own thoughts “as if” they were the thoughts of a great thinker. Memoir writing is a collection of your insights and portrayals of your ordinary life. So when you have an observation or insight, take it seriously even if it seems to be about the most mundane topics—the patterns of shoppers in your local grocery store, your neighbor’s habit of watering the sidewalk with his sprinkler.

  • Get some good books about writing. In my opinion, there aren’t enough of these. But, I have a few that I fully recommend. For encouragement as a writer (and don’t kid yourself, we all need this): Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. For a good sound understanding of a memoir’s structure and some great getting-started exercises: Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. I also recommend Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington.

  • Take a class or hire a coach. Many universities offer night classes in memoir writing and many writers, such as myself, coach writers over the phone or in person.

To learn more about my coaching, visit me at

Theo Pauline Nestor's fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of places including Brain, Child, Alligator Juniper,,, and The New York Times. HOW TO SLEEP ALONE IN A KING SIZE BED was a Kirkus Reviews Top Pick for Reading Groups.

Thank you, Theo, for visiting The Stiletto Gang!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

History Timeline

Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri Westerson’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Reporter, would-be actress, graphic artist; these are the things she spent her time on before creating the newest hardboiled detective, Crispin Guest—ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London in her Medieval Noir series. The Boston Globe called her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut from St. Martin’s Press, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 Macavity finalist and a finalist for the 2010 Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her third, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, is due for release October 12. Jeri is newsletter editor and on the board of directors for the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is president of the Orange County chapter of Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of Private Eye Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society.

Now I know it’s not your fault. Somewhere back in grade school you had a lousy history teacher who thought memorizing dates was more important than bringing history alive. But I was one of the lucky ones. Not only was I blessed with interesting history teachers, but I was also surrounded by a love of history at home, and to me, history was always something vibrant and exciting.

Most of us have so many erroneous ideas about certain time periods that we really have no grasp of the big picture of history. We find it hard to even place events on a timeline. For instance, in the 1200’s, the Inca empire in Peru was at its height as was the Aztec empire in Mexico, where they consumed much chocolate. At the same time in Europe—where they never heard of the New World, let alone chocolate--knights were heading off to the Middle East for the fourth crusade. And in China, the empire was ruled by the Sung Dynasty.

Not only were we taught boring history, but Eurocentric history.

There is the old saying by early 20th century philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If one looks back at history, we see that this is true, from something as big as great battles to determine borders to small acts of simple interaction between people that grow into great tragedies.

One of the biggest problems is that our teachers never connected the dots of history that affected other events in other places. For instance, did you know that the Italian Christopher Columbus was sent by the Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to find a new route to India? He wasn’t sailing to prove the world was round. Everyone already knew that, but I bet that was what you were taught in school. I bet you also thought that the big bad Church wanted to charge Columbus for heresy for claiming that the earth was round, right? Wrong! We can blame Washington Irving for that. The same fellow who gave us RIP VAN WINKLE and THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, wrote a biography of Columbus in 1828, and he wrote a fictional scene wherein the Church wants to charge Columbus with heresy when the Church taught that the earth was flat—which, of course, it did no such thing. Teachers picked up on it, though, and for generations, school children believed that Columbus set out to prove the earth was round when everyone already knew this and never believed it was flat (Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century is quoted as saying, the “curvature of the earth explains why we see farther at higher elevations.” And don’t forget those paintings of Jesus holding an orb with a cross on top denoting his dominion over the earth. He’s holding an orb not a plate.)

But in 1492, Columbus was not the only one sailing the ocean blue. This was also the year that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were kicking out all the Jews of Spain…who probably funded this miraculous journey of Columbus in the first place. They weren’t the first country to get rid of their Jews, either. England expelled them in 1290. France had many expulsions, welcome-backs, expulsions again. It was either the Middle East for Jews or to Eastern Europe and even then they were relegated into ghettoes, by their own choice at first, then later by force. If we could have looked at this early part of Jewish history, we can see how old prejudices and expulsions led to the culmination of hatred in Germany during World War II.

In my latest novel, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, I explore medieval Jews and Crispin's perfectly medieval attitude toward them, along with a few Jewish legends like the Golem, the Jews’ mythological protector.

The history we learned in school is little connected to events that transpired later. In fact, unless you were a history major, you never really learn how event leads on to event—why Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s assassination led to World War I, for instance, which was a direct link to World War II, and then, tangentially, the Holocaust. Look at all those veins of events that shaped America today! It’s a shame, really, because some of those happenings make for interesting tales indeed. And they still filter down to events today, lessons we should have learned from history long ago.

Jeri Westerson

THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT--Coming from St. Martin's October 2010
SERPENT IN THE THORNS--in Bookstores! (2010 Finalist Macavity Award)
blogging at

Jeri keeps her tales interesting in her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novels. You can read a first chapter of her latest THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT, at

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

College Talk

Maggie Barbieri

I went to a dinner party the other night to not celebrate my friend’s daughter’s sixteenth birthday. The daughter was so opposed to celebrating this birthday—we’re not sure why—but we went against her wishes and brought her presents and sang “Happy Birthday” while cutting a big, giant ice cream cake. All in all, it was the best non-celebration I’ve been to in a while. It was refreshing to have a retro birthday party, complete with ice cream cake, candles, family, and friends.

This birthday is significant because her birthday represents the last of my friend’s children to turn sixteen. They are now in their junior year of high school and with that come PSATs, college essay writing courses, SAT prep courses, Advanced Placement courses (AP), and a lot of stress. My daughter and her friends—no slouches when it comes to studying and doing well in school—are hearing a lot about what it takes to get into college and how they might fall short of their personal goals with just one random misstep. I have spent the better part of the summer convincing my child, as well as her friends (when I can get them all together and hold them hostage), that they are very bright and not to sell themselves short when it comes to applying to schools.

But what is even more troubling than kids thinking they can’t achieve even their most realistic goals is how early all of this talk of college—and careers—is starting. It seems like this conversation, at parties and on ball fields alike, has been going on since the girls first entered high school. This may be a function of their having played on varsity sports and being surrounded by older girls who were making these decisions, or maybe not. Maybe we, as a group, are starting the conversation too early. Instead of using high school as a way station to college—a means to an end—we should just shut up and let the kids enjoy the experience that four years of high school can bring. Maybe I should take my own advice and “shut my dang pie hole.”

I’m just as guilty as other parents, I suspect, and that is why I’m going to keep college talk to a minimum around here until absolutely necessary. Heck, all this talk is starting to stress me out! I keep thinking back to my own college search which involved me visiting two colleges, applying to both, getting into one, and going there. There was no talk of the “common app” or the “safety school” or applying to ten or more schools, even though you would probably only choose between two, three, at most. When I was applying, college applications cost upwards of $150 to send in, and back in the recession-riddled late seventies and early eighties, you picked wisely so as not to have to take a college loan to pay off the cost of applying to college in the first place.

At the birthday party, there was talk of SAT tutors who charge in the neighborhood of four thousand dollars to help your kid ace the test and “college coaches” who can help you and your child navigate the process of applying. There was a discussion over the value of taking the Advanced Placement courses versus doing well in non-AP courses. A conversation centered around going to state university as opposed to private university. It’s enough to make your head spin.

The varsity football team had their home opener this past Saturday, which was a gorgeous late summer day in the low 70s. Girls’ field hockey commences this week. Mums are on sale at the local nursery, and soon, I’ll be making the first of many apple pies with delicious New York State apples. Homecoming is the second weekend in October. I need to remind my daughter that these are the things we should be talking about and doing and forget about test-taking skills, scores, and financial aid forms. There’s plenty of time until we need to get knee-deep in all of that.

What do you think, Stiletto faithful? Live in the present and enjoy high school or focus on the future?

Maggie Barbieri

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Relationship with Cars

I've never had much feeling one way or the other about automobiles except that I want them to start when I get in them and I'll get to wherever I need to go.

When I was a kid growing up we always had a Chevrolet--I remember a Chevy coupe, then a larger Chevy sedan, but my dad during those years was definitely a Chevy man.

Then I got married. Our first car was some old clunker that died while we were on our way from Norfolk VA to Cambridge MD. No one in hubby's family was willing to come and get us, so we rode a bus. Someone stole the car and all hubby's tools. (Because of the fact no one would help us, hubby helps anyone who gets stuck anywhere, whether we know them or not.)

One of hubby's favorites was an old Cadillac. Along with our four month old daughter, we drove it from Maryland to California. It broke down two or three times along the way and when we finally rolled in to L.A. and my parents home, the car died--literally. All four tires went flat and there was a big crack in the block. Hubby and my dad put another engine in the Caddy and it made several more trips across the U.S.--but not with me or the kids in it--just hubby driving to wherever he was stationed.

Not sure when it happened, but hubby began a life long love affair with Fords. In the beginning they were second-hand station wagons that he always had to work on.

Somewhere between 3 and 4 kids, I got an MG--an old one with the steering wheel on the right hand side. Oh, how I loved that car. Driving with the top down I could forget I had a houseful of kids--except when I had them crammed in with me. Remember, there were no seat belts back in that time.

Finally, I totally outgrew that darling car, or I should say the family outgrew it, and we sold it. The replacement was a VW bus. All the kids fit in it just fine along with half the neighborhood kids. Still no seat belts. We even drove that bus on a cross country camping trip pulling a little trailer filled with our camping gear. The big draw back to that VW was half the time it wouldn't start which meant all passengers had to get out and push. It didn't take much of a push, and I could pop the clutch and it would start. Great fun the night I took my lady friends, all dressed up in evening gowns to some sophisticated function and every time we stopped, they had to get out and push.

From there we moved up to a Ford truck and camper. That was a much better solution for all our camping trips. Since that time we've had Ford vans, Ford station wagons, Ford sedans, and a Ford Windstar and now I'm driving a Ford Edge--and hubby an old Ford truck with dual wheels, something he's always wanted.

I'm glad I have the Ford Edge because it doesn't look like all the rest of the cars. Nowadays, except for VW bugs and PT cruisers, almost all the cars look alike. When I had the Windstar everyone seemed to have one the same color as mine--I tried to get into more cars that didn't belong to me.

I love the Edge, not too many people in our area have one, and it helps that I have a big magnetic sign on the back that has my website in big letters.

But really, it doesn't matter, all I've ever wanted was a car that started when I got in it and took me where I wanted to go.

Marilyn Meredith

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Chisholm Trail Book Festival

This coming weekend I'll be participating in the Chisholm Trail Book Festival in Duncan, Oklahoma. I'll attend an author dinner on Friday night and then on Saturday I will present an hour-long workshop entitled "Clues to Writing a Mystery." That afternoon, I'm doing a 20-minute reading from Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David.

Guess which part I'm the most nervous about? Yep, the reading aloud part.

I like hearing other people read short excerpts to me, but don't enjoy the process myself. My mind tends to drift while I'm reading, wondering if anyone is listening, fearful if I'll start coughing, worrying if I'll butcher my own writing.

Teaching the workshop? Piece of cake! No, really. (Note to self - try to work in the title of the second Evelyn David book, Murder Takes the Cake.) I love talking about the process of writing, probably because it still seems like such a wonder to me. To start with a blank page and create people, places, and events that had only existed in my mind before, is such an emotional high. My plan is to cover the different types of mysteries: cozy, police procedural, romantic suspense, traditional, detective, etc. I'm also going to talk about plotting the mystery and creating characters.

Between now and Friday, I'll be drafting some materials for the workshop and finding an excerpt from Murder Off the Books to read. I'm guessing about ten minutes of reading max and then leave the rest for discussion. Or maybe I'll do a five-minute read, some discussion, then another short excerpt, then another round of questions to close it off.

I'll have a 6-foot table to decorate. I feel a trip to Hobby Lobby in my immediate future. Wonder what I can come up with for a Murder Mystery theme?

If you're near Duncan, Oklahoma on Saturday, stop by. I'll put you to work manning my author table while I present my workshop.

Chisholm Trail Book Festival
September 18, 2010
10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Simmons Center
800 Chisholm Trail Parkway
Duncan, OK.

aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

Interested in purchasing the mysteries I'll be discussing?

New 2nd Edition Murder Off the Books trade paperback version available at The Digital Bookstore.

Need an E-Book version for your Apple iPad? Both books are available at the Apple iStore.
Murder Off the Books
Murder Takes the Cake

Murder Off the Books Buy Kindle version of 2nd Edition

Murder Takes the Cake Buy Kindle version of 2nd Edition

Friday, September 10, 2010

Soapbox Stilettos: The Reading Habits of Men vs. Women

The topic we picked to dish about this month on our Soapbox couldn’t come at a more timely moment. Not long after we selected it, Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, and Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult spoke out on the unevenness of book reviews when it comes to fiction written by men vs. fiction written by women. So here’s the question we debated: why do you think (some) men are afraid to pick up books written by women? Especially novels labeled "chick lit," "women's fiction," "cozy," or "romance." Why doesn't it seem a problem for women to read books by male authors and female authors?

Maggie: There is this perception that anything labeled "women's fiction," "cozy," or "chick lit" will only appeal to a very small segment of the population: women who like that "kind of thing." Most of these books are about people and relationships, however, and some of your coziest of the cozies delve into some serious and gruesome stuff (see my second book, Extracurricular Activities, where the most deserving villains end up without their hands and feet). Men like escapist literature just as much as women, I believe. Honestly, though, what man is going to pick up a book that has a pair of high heels and a martini glass on the cover? I think the way many women writers are marketed contributes to the idea that only women can read those (OUR) books. I can't think of a more female-centered book than Wally Lamb's first, She's Come Undone, which I consider a literary gem. Had it been written by a woman, it would have been marketed in a completely different way and reached a much smaller audience, in my humble opinion, of course. I think more men would read books that fall squarely into the "chick lit" category if the books were packaged and marketed in such a way to make them be reflective of what they are: stories about people and their lives.

Susan: I have to agree with Maggie that there are often serious issues underlying fiction dismissed as “women’s” or “cozies,” only the packaging usually belies that. Where mysteries are concerned, those softer covers, often with tea cups or cats, are frequently made fun of by those who write darker stuff. I remember one author of serial killer stories in particular who regularly belittled cozy fiction in his talks. I’ve written both dark mysteries and light mysteries, and I actually found doing humor harder than serious stuff. My amateur sleuth novels were all packaged with candy-colored covers, and I didn’t mind at all that they were marketed to romance fans as well as mystery. My debut in women’s fiction, The Cougar Club, has a hot pink cover with a handbag on it. I would venture to say a man would have to be very sure of himself to buy such a book and read it in public! I buy books written by both sexes without thinking twice, and it would take a pretty freaky cover to turn me off. There’s definitely a double standard, but that’s life as we know it.

Evelyn: People do judge a book by its cover. Men are no exception. Just as we wouldn't pick up a book featuring a guy wearing camouflage holding a gun, most men won't pick up a book with a woman in an antebellum dress holding a bouquet of roses. The cover is a large and colorful but clear message about who the book is written for—and who the author is.

Susan: A guy friend of mine once emailed to say, "I was reading Blue Blood on the subway and got a lot of strange looks." I applauded him for being so brave since Blue Blood has a typically chick lit cover that's bright yellow with cartoonish women's legs on it. Which has me wondering if electronic readers will begin to change the book buying habits of men at all because no one can see what you're reading. Hmm.

Rachel: I don’t think men are “afraid” to pick up women’s fiction. I think the presumed topics in those novels just don’t interest them, and that’s fair. Just a few weeks ago, a guy friend who read an ARC of my new book, Dead Lift, said he didn’t expect to like it as much as Final Approach because, where the first novel was set around skydiving, this one is set (partially) in a spa. The interesting thing is that he did end up liking the story despite its more feminine setting. This is where I think men and women differ. Women are more likely to pick up books that are more “manly” if there’s a good mystery driving the plot. But what man wants to be caught with a book that has a pink, sparkly high heel shoe on the front? Final Approach was originally edited by a male author of many romance novels. He published them under a female pseudonym. I wonder how many women are writing as men.

Misa: Raise your hand if you know the gender of Harper Lee. Uh-huh. It’s a book that’s highly recognized by men and women, but how many men think Harper’s a man? Okay, this isn’t really a reason, but I’m just saying.

Rachel: It might be the case that men assume novels written by women will deal primarily with women’s themes or that they will be softer novels. In many cases, I’d agree that’s true. When I think about books by male authors, though, none come to mind that were predominantly driven by “guy themes.” Male protagonists seem more career-driven with relationships on the periphery, and that’s okay with me. I suppose a man picking up a book with a female protagonist may tire of her endless pursuit for dates, preoccupation with her weight, or frustrations with her in-laws. The unfortunate thing is that many books by female authors do not focus on these things. We all have to keep an open mind, folks. There’s something out there for all of us to read.

Evelyn: We're generalizing here, but it's a pretty safe generalization. Men don't want to talk about emotions, theirs or anyone else's. They certainly don't want to read about them.

Misa: Men show a huge lack of interest about personal introspection, family, and/or domestic elements in their book choices. We’re still ingrained with the age old gender differences, and reading choices reflect that. Women acknowledge that fiction can give guidance or solace but with men...not so much. They keep emotion bottled up. Books written by women tend to have more emotion built in and for a man to read such a book would, by association, mean he has those emotions, too, and he just doesn’t, right?

Evelyn: We believe that men who do read fiction are drawn to themes, more likely than not, written by other men, such as Westerns, military themes (think Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October), and adventure.

Misa: Men read angst-ridden books in which the struggle to overcome some catastrophic circumstance is at the core of the plot. Don’t women write this type of novel? Sure, as long as there’s emotional growth woven in. Ah, emotion, there’s that word again. Men only like adventure and triumphing over adversity just as women only like romance and love. God, it’s great to be a stereotype, isn’t it?!

So what do YOU think? We’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject, too!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Very Private Grave

Book 1, The Monastery Murders

by Donna Fletcher Crow

Chapter 1
Felicity flung her history book against the wall. She wasn’t studying for the priesthood to learn about ancient saints. She wanted to bring justice to this screwed-up world. Children were starving in Africa, war was ravaging the Middle East, women everywhere were treated as inferiors. Even here in England—

She stopped her internal rant when she realized the crash of her book had obscured the knock at her door. Reluctantly she picked up the book, noting with satisfaction the smudge it had left on the wall, and went into the hall. Her groan wasn’t entirely internal when she made out the black cassock and grey scapular of her caller through the glass panel of the door. She couldn’t have been in less of a mood to see one of the long-faced monks who ran the College of the Transfiguration which she had chosen to attend in a moment of temporary insanity. She jerked the door open with a bang.

(Felicity’s annoyance changes to delight when she discovers that her visitor is Father Dominic, her favorite monk, whom she had thought was still on pilgrimage. They visit over tea— taken black by Fr. Dominic since it’s Ash Wednesday, a fast day for the community— and before he leaves he gives her a small parcel wrapped in brown paper, which she sticks in her pocket, disciplining herself to return to her reading before indulging in the pleasure of what is sure to be Fr. Dominic’s latest poetic offering, a passion they share.)

Two hours later the insistent ringing of the community bell called her back from her reading just in time to fling a long black cassock on over her shetland sweater and dash across the street and up the hill to the Community grounds. Her long legs carried her the distance in under three minutes— she had timed it once. Once inside the high stone wall enclosing the Community she slowed her pace. It never failed. No matter how irritated she became with all the ancient ritual and nonsense of the place, there was something about the storybook quality of it all that got through to her in her quieter moments.

The spicy scent of incense met her at the door of the church. She dipped her finger in the bowl of holy water and turned to share it with the brother just behind her. Shy Br. Matthew extended a plump finger without meeting her eyes. They each crossed themselves and slipped into their seats in the choir.

“Miserere mei, Deus. . .” The choir and cantors had practiced for weeks to be able to sing Psalm 51 to the haunting melody composed by Allegri. The words ascended to the vaulted ceiling; the echoes reverberated. Candles flickered in the shadowed corners. She had been here for six months— long enough for the uniqueness of it all to have palled to boredom— but somehow there was a fascination she couldn't define. “Mystery,” the monks would tell her. And she could do no better.

What was the right term to describe how she was living? Counter-cultural existence? Alternate lifestyle? She pondered for a moment, then smiled. Parallel universe. That was it. She was definitely living in a parallel universe. The rest of the world was out there, going about its everyday life, with no idea that this world existed alongside of it.

It was a wonderful, cozy, secretive feeling as she thought of bankers and shopkeepers rushing home after a busy day, mothers preparing dinner for hungry school children, farmers milking their cows— all over this little green island the workaday world hummed along to the pace of modern life. And here she was on a verdant hillside in Yorkshire living a life hardly anyone knew even existed. Harry Potter. It was a very Harry Potter experience.

She forced her attention back to the penitential service with its weighty readings, somber plainchant responses, and minor key music set against purple vestments. Only when they came to the blessing of the ashes did she realize Fr. Dominic wasn’t in his usual place. Her disappointment was sharp. He had definitely said he was to do the imposition of the ashes and she had felt receiving the ashen cross on her forehead from that dear man would give the ancient ritual added meaning. Instead, Fr. Antony, one of the secular priests who lectured at the college, not even one of the monastic community, stood to hold the small pot of palm ashes while Fr. Anselm, the Superior of the Community, blessed them with holy water and incense.

Felicity knelt at the altar rail, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes were cold, a sooty mark of grief, gritty on her forehead.

“Amen,” she responded automatically.

She was back in her seat, turning ahead to the final hymn, “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” when she heard the soft slapping of sandals on the stone floor. Oh, there’s Fr. Dominic. She relaxed at the thought, putting away her worries that he had been taken suddenly ill. But her relief was short-lived when Fr. Clement, the Principal of the college, and Jonathan Breen, a scholar making a retreat at the monastery, slipped to the altar for their ashes.

The final notes of the postlude were still echoing high overhead when Felicity rose from her seat and hurried outside. Dinner, a vegetarian Lenten meal, would start in the refectory almost immediately and it wouldn’t do to be late. If she hurried, though, she could just dash back to her flat and pick up a book of Latin poetry for Fr. Dominic. She had a new volume of Horace, and she knew Fr. D loved the Roman's half Stoic, half Epicurean philosophy. He would have time to enjoy what he called his “guilty pleasure” while he recuperated from his indisposition.

She bounded up the single flight of stairs, flung open her door and came to a sudden halt. “Oh!” The cry was knocked from her like a punch in the stomach. She couldn’t believe it. She backed against the wall, closing her eyes in the hope that all would right itself when she opened them. It didn’t. The entire flat had been turned upside down.

Felicity stood frozen for perhaps a full minute, trying to take it all in: books pulled from shelves, drawers pulled from her desk, cushions flung from chairs. Hardly breathing, she rushed into her kitchen, bath, bedroom— all chaos— sheets and duvet ripped from her bed, clothes pulled from her wardrobe. She picked her way through scattered papers, dumped files, ripped letters. Dimly she registered that her computer and CD player were still there. Oh, and there was the Horace book still by her bed. She pulled her purse from under a pile of clothes. Empty. But its contents lay nearby. Credit cards and money still there.

Not robbery. So then, what? Why?

Was this an anti-women-clergy thing? Had she underestimated the extent of the resentment? Or was it an anti-American thing? The American president was widely unpopular in England. Had he done something to trigger an anti-American demonstration? Felicity would be the last to know. She never turned on the news.

Well, whatever it was, she would show them. If someone in the college thought they could scare her off by flinging a few books around she’d give them something new to think about. She stormed out, slamming her door hard enough to rattle the glass pane and strode up the hill at twice the speed she had run down it. Not for nothing her years of rigorous exercise at the ballet barre. When she reached the monastery grounds she keyed in the numbers on the security lock with angry jabs and barely waited for the high, black iron gates to swing open before she was speeding up the graveled walk.

Felicity's long blond braid thumped against her back as she charged onward, her mind seething. If those self-righteous prigs who posed as her fellow students thought they could put her off with some sophomoric trick—

She approached the college building, practicing the speech she would deliver to all assembled for dinner in the refectory: “Now listen up, you lot! If you think you can push me around just because your skirts are longer than mine. . .”

She punched a clenched-fist gesture toward her imaginary cassock-clad audience, then saw the Horace book still clutched in her hand. Oh, yes. First things first. She would have missed the opening prayer anyway. She would just run by Father D’s room— then she would tell them.

She hurried on up the path beyond the college to the monastery, ran her swipe card through the lock, and was halfway down the hall before the door clicked shut behind her. She had only been to Dominic’s room once before, to collect a poetry book he was anxious to share with her, but she would have had no trouble locating it, even had the door not been standing ajar.

She pushed it wider, preparing to step in. “Father D— ” she stopped at the sight of a man in a black cassock standing there praying. He jerked around at the sound of her voice and she recognized Fr. Antony, her church history lecturer.

She took a step backward when she saw the look of horror on his sheet-white face. “Felicity. Don’t come in.” He held up a hand to stop her and she saw it was covered with blood.

“Father D! Is he hemorrhaging?” She lunged forward, then stopped at the sight before her.

The whole room seemed covered in blood. Bright red splotches on the pristine white walls and bedding, on the open pages of a prayer book, on the statue of Our Lord, forming lurid stigmata on the hands extended in mercy. . .

And in the center of the floor, in a pool of red, his battered head all but unrecognizable— her beloved Father Dominic. The smell of fresh blood clogged her nostrils. Gorge rose in her throat.

“Felicity— ” Fr. Antony extended his reddened hands to her in a pleading gesture.

“No!” She screamed, wielding her Latin book as a shield against the blood, a red haze of shock and horror clouding her vision.

She couldn’t believe Antony's face could get even whiter. “Felicity, wait. Listen—”

She dimly registered his words, but the voice in her head shouted with far greater force. No! It can’t be. It's a mistake. She was in the wrong room. Must be. She shook her head against the nightmare she had seen yet couldn't accept what she had seen. Blackness rolled toward her.

She staggered backward into the hall and slumped to the floor as the room spun before her. She closed her eyes against the darkness as her mind reeled, groping for a coherent thought. How could this be?

Only a short time ago she had been reveling in the peace of this remote holy place. Where could such violence have come from? How was it possible here? In a place of prayer? To a holy man. Why?

If Fr. Dominic wasn't safe who could be?

And even as the questions tumbled, half-formed through her head, even as her mind denied the act her eyes saw, she knew she had to find an explanation. How could she continue studying— believing in— purpose and justice if such senseless irrationality reigned free?

Focusing on the questions gave her strength to get her feet under her again.

Antony was still standing dazed in the gore-splattered room looking as though he could collapse in the middle of the pool of blood. Felicity grabbed his arm, jerked him into the corridor, and shoved him against the wall where he stayed, leaning heavily. He held his hands before his face as if not accepting they were his own. “When he missed mass I came to check on him. . . I felt for a pulse— ”

“We must get help!” Felicity looked wildly around.

“Yes, of course.” Her energy seemed to hearten Antony. He pushed himself forward unsteadily. “Forgive me, I feel so stupid. It was the horror. I— we must tell the Superior. He’ll call the police.”

“Police? You mean an ambulance.” Felicity started toward the room again. Yes, that was it— how could she have dithered so when Father D needed help. “He’s lost so much blood, but maybe—”

“No!” Antony gripped her shoulder with more strength than she realized he was capable of. “Don’t go in there again, Felicity. It’s useless.”

She knew. She had seen the blood.

* * *

“With a bludgeoned body in Chapter 1, and a pair of intrepid amateur sleuths, A Very Private Grave qualifies as a traditional mystery. But this is no mere formulaic whodunit: it is a Knickerbocker Glory of a thriller. At its centre is a sweeping, page-turning quest – in the steps of St. Cuthbert – through the atmospherically-depicted North of England, served up with dollops of Church history and lashings of romance. In this novel, Donna Fletcher Crow has created her own niche within the genre of clerical mysteries.” – Kate Charles, author of Deep Waters

Author Bio

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 35 books, mostly novels dealing with British history. The award-winning GLASTONBURY, The Novel of Christian England is her best-known work, an Arthurian grail search epic covering 15 centuries of English history. A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, book 1 in the Monastery Murders series is her reentry into publishing after a 10 year hiatus. THE SHADOW OF REALITY, first in the Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries, a romantic intrigue, is available in Ebook format. Donna and her husband have 4 adult children and 10 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener and you can see pictures of her garden, watch the trailer for A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, and read her international blog at