Friday, July 20, 2018

From the Keyboard to the Kitchen

by Shari Randall

I have to admit that my favorite cooking utensils are the take-out menu and the phone. I do occasionally enjoy baking and I can follow a recipe like nobody's business. That's why I've been surprised to discover that some folks have categorized my mystery series as a "culinary cozy." 

Cue laughter from my husband and kids.

I write a series set at the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack in mythical Mystic Bay, Connecticut. The Mermaid is owned by Gina "Aunt Gully" Fontana, a woman who has finally achieved her dream of owning a lobster shack. Lobsters are her life and foodies travel miles to eat one of her award winning lobster rolls, which are served topped with Lobster Love sauce. This sauce is basically lobster bisque. Yes, Aunt Gully pours lobster plus butter and heavy cream on lobster.

In the name of research, I've visited many lobster shacks and enjoyed the delicious treats they prepare.

But I've never cooked a lobster myself. This past weekend I decided to change that and tackle not just cooking a lobster, but also creating the delicious Lobster Love sauce that lures lobster lovers to the Lazy Mermaid lobster shack.

Could writing a character who is an excellent cook help me in the kitchen? I decided to channel Aunt Gully's expertise and cook a lobster.

(Full disclosure: All this cooking took a village, including my husband and fabulous sister-in-law, who is an even better cook than Aunt Gully.)

It started with steaming some lobsters, which we had to eat with clams casino, corn on the cob, and a lovely a bean salad my husband made because sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your art. 

If you've read the books, you know that Aunt Gully sings to her lobsters as they make the ultimate sacrifice, so I hummed her signature tune ("Get Happy" from Summer Stock) as I put the lobsters in the pot. 

Of course, the key to lobster bisque is the lobster flavor - and butter and heavy cream. Lots of butter and heavy cream.

How to get the lobster flavor? For my bisque recipe, we used the leftover lobster carcasses.

Preparing the carcasses is as much fun as it sounds – removing the "yucky stuff" (the intestinal tract and the sac behind the head), breaking up the shells, and sauteeing them in butter. This created a low-tide odor in the house that took two days to dissipate. Take my advice and always cook your lobsters outside on your grill.

From this...

To bisque!

We combined the carcasses with garlic, onion, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, and stock, simmered the resulting mixture, removed the shells, ran the mixture through a food processor, strained it, simmered it some more, added a lot of butter and cream, tasted the soup, added salt and pepper, and there it was. Aunt Gully's Lobster Love sauce.


It took hours to prepare, but the end result was worth it. I not only gained a beautiful bowl of bisque, I gained a whole new appreciation for Aunt Gully.

Have you ever tried to channel one of your characters?  What are some of the things you've done in the name of research for your writing?

Shari Randall's latest Lobster Shack Mystery, AGAINST THE CLAW, will be published by St. Martin's Press on July 31.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


by Kay Kendall

Reading is similar to chocolate. It tastes luscious to most people, but not to all. These days, however, we know through research that chocolate is a healthy thing to eat.
Scientific researchers have likewise come up with reasons why we should read. Here
is a curated list of reasons scientists say reading should be done—not only for our enjoyment and increased knowledge, but for our mental and physical well-being.
So next time you feel remorse when you’ve spent all day reading a favorite new book, just remember these reasons. Then POOF! Your guilt should vanish. Getting swept away by a compelling story line or character in a wonderful book is not only entertaining but also is good for you.

Which of these reasons resonate most with you? I’ve picked two faves. I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours! How about it?

1. Reading is an effective way to overcome stress. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading relaxed the heart rate and muscle tension faster than other activities often said to be de-stressors—for example taking a walk, listening to music, and drinking tea. Note that the research was done in England, a bastion of tea drinkers, so this is really saying something shocking.

 2. Reading exercises our brains. As our bodies need movement to be strong, our brains need a work out too. Reading is a more complex activity than watching television and actually helps establish new neural pathways.

 3. Reading helps maintain our brains’ sharpness. Neurologists who studied brains of those who died around age 89 saw signs of a third less decline among those who stayed mentally active with reading, writing, and other modes of mental stimulation like puzzles, as compared to those who did little or none of those activities.

 4. Reading may even ward off Alzheimer's disease. Adults who pursue activities like reading or puzzles that involve the brain are less likely to have Alzheimer's disease. Intellectual activity not only grows our brain power but also strengthens brain against disease.

5. Reading may help us sleep better. Reading before bed is a good de-stressing habit, unlike watching flashing electronic devices or television that cue the brain to wake up.

6. Reading self-help books can ease depression. Reading books that encourage people to take charge of their own lives can promote the idea that positive change is possible. A control group that had “bibliotherapy” combined with talk therapy was less depressed than another group that did not read self-help literature.

7. Reading helps people become more empathetic. Spending time exploring an author's imagination helps people understand other people’s points of view and problems. Researchers in the Netherlands performed experiments showing that people who were "emotionally transported" by a work of fiction experienced boosts in empathy.

8. Reading can develop and improve a good self-image. Poor readers or non-readers often have low opinions of themselves and their abilities. Reading helps people understand their own strength and abilities, hence growing better self-images.

So, here's to your hours and hours ahead of guilt-free reading! Enjoy!

Meet the author -- Kay Kendall is a long-time fan of historical novels and now writes mysteries that capture the spirit and turbulence of the sixties. A reformed PR executive who won international awards for her projects, Kay lives in Texas with her Canadian husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. 
Her book titles show she's a Bob Dylan buff. Her second mystery, Rainy Day Women, won two Silver Falchion Awards at Killer Nashville in 2015.
Visit Kay at her website
or on Facebook

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stretching Out of My Comfort Zone

by J.M. Phillippe

It all starts with an idea. What if...?

And then you have a choice -- follow through with the idea, or don't. Not following through is easy. You just have to avoid taking any action.

But following through often means doing something new, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some sort of risk.

This year, I am putting out a Christmas-themed novella. I have never written a holiday-themed story before, so this is all new territory. There is the added stress that I have a very tight deadline to get this story done.

The fun / hard part is having to think about Christmas stuff when in the middle of a heat wave. At this point, "Christmas in July" is a cliche, but I have found myself listening to Christmas carols, and watching Christmas movies to help me get in the mood for my story.

It has definitely been hard to concentrate on Christmas themes with fireworks going off, but it has also been nice to keep some of that holiday cheer up year round. I even have some decorations out for visual inspiration.

Trying something new always feels at least a little risky. And while all writing feels risky, stepping outside of your usual genre or style feels like an even bigger leap than usual. My fear and anxiety is at war with my excitement, and any given day one or the other wins. Good writing days, the excitement wins. Bad writing days, the fear wins.

I find this same fear vs excitement battle happening in other parts of my life, forcing me to take deep breaths, control my catastrophizing thinking, and remind myself that the stakes are not nearly as high as my emotions want me to feel they are.

In the end, I know I will be proud for stepping outside of my comfort zone, whatever happens with the book. That's what I keep holding on to whenever the fear threatens to take over -- there is going to be another side of this feeling. All I have to do is plow through, endure the discomfort, and make it to that other side.


J.M. Phillippe is the author of the novels Perfect Likeness and Aurora One and the short stories, The Sight and Plane Signals. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free time binge-watching quality TV, drinking cider with amazing friends, and learning the art of radical self-acceptance, one day at a time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Lexington (SC) Serious Writers' Tour with Steven James, Michelle Medlock Adams, and Bethany Jett

Bethany Jett
by Paula Gail Benson

In May, the local Word Weavers group, an affiliate of Word Weavers International, brought the Serious Writer One Day Tour to the Riverbend Community Church in Lexington, S.C. If you’re looking for excellent craft and business instruction, I suggest you check out the offerings at The organization, operating since 2015, has online classes as well as the one-day programs and appearances at conferences.


Michelle Medlock Adams
The instructors who attended the Lexington meeting were Michelle Medlock Adams, a journalist and award-winning author of primarily children’s books and devotionals; Bethany Jett, co-founder of The Serious Writer and Vice-President of Platinum Literary Services, whose work includes devotionals, ghostwriting, and marketing; and Steven James, who I knew as a prolific thriller writer and terrific writing instructor, whose craft books include Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel. I also learned that he had written a significant number of books for the inspirational market.


I decided to attend the program because I had heard Steven James speak at Killer Nashville and I knew he taught a highly respected novel writing intensive course with Robert Dugoni, limited to twelve participants each year. His presentations for the Serious Writer tour were very generous, including specific techniques and excellent handouts to help with crafting twists, creating suspense, and revising problem areas. While I spent most of my time at Steven James’ sessions, I also very much enjoyed the portions of the program where all the authors joined in to give tips about the process of marketing a book and using social media. The day was full of good advice and fellowship.


Steven James
Following are some great lists of information that James provided for improving story telling:

Aspects of Story Telling

(1) orientation, which lets a reader know where the story takes place, then provides the hook that gives the impetus for escalation;

(2) crisis or calling, which is what goes wrong, turns the world upside down, and makes the protagonist respond;

(3) escalation, which occurs as things get worse and is in two parts: (a) the moment of despair and darkness, and (b) the inevitable, unexpected conclusion; and, finally, as the story ends, are:

(4) discovery, and

(5) transformation.

James recommended that every story is driven by tension and every scene should end with a plot twist. To be satisfying, plot twists should be:

(1) unexpected;

(2) inevitable;

(3) an escalation of what preceded it; and

(4) a revelation of what went before.


He categorized the five types of plot twists as:

(1) identity;

(2) awareness;

(3) complexity (example: a sting operation);

(4) cleverness; and

(5) peril.


James listed four essentials for creating suspense:

(1) reader empathy (that is, providing a character trait or desire with which a reader can identify, for example, to love and be loved or to have an adventure);

(2) reader concern (giving reasons why a reader should care about the characters);

(3) impending danger (physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or relational); and

(4) escalating tension.


Finally, he offered four questions to ask when solving plot problems:

(1) what would the character naturally do?

(2) how can I make things worse?

(3) how can I add twists or take the story in a new direction?

(4) what promises have I made that I have not yet kept?


Steven James said that that everything you write is a promise and that in fiction a writer has both stated and implied promises. In distinguishing among mystery, suspense, and horror, he gave the following characteristics:

(1) mysteries are intellectual, not emotional activity where the detective is two steps ahead of the reader;

(2) suspense deals with important life matters where the reader is two steps ahead of the characters and wants to stop the danger; and

(3) horror allows the gruesome event to happen with the reader and characters in the same place.


If you want to read more, please check out Steven James’ website,, and his recorded interviews with other writers at


And, if one of the Serious Writer tours or events is coming near you, you’ll find it a great program to attend!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sock Stories by Debra H. Goldstein

SOCK STORIES by Debra H. Goldstein
Have you ever noticed the socks a person wears? Like the words a writers put on paper, each pair tells a story or evokes images or feelings.

For example, my husband wears dark socks to his office because he has bought into the theory that they look more  look more professional than gym socks, but his disinterest in how he dresses is reflected by his unwillingness to take the time to match the color of his socks to the shade of his slacks. He’s just as likely to wear black with brown as he is to grab a pair of brown socks. Joel is most comfortable in gym socks and sneakers. To my chagrin, his yucky looking tube socks and an old pair of slip-ons are the image indelibly pressed into our neighbors’ minds when they seem him going outside every morning to retrieve his precious newspaper.

A young man I know tells a different story through his sock choices. He considers himself to be a player. Consequently, he coordinates the sharpest socks I’ve ever seen with tailor made suits and shirts, as well as specialized pocket handkerchiefs or patterned ties.

Personally, I’ve always been fond of wearing socks that tell a story or bring a memory back to me. I wear Chanukah, Mah jongg, and other holiday socks to make a statement for the moment, much as one does with a Christmas sweater. On a bad day, I choose between the comfort afforded by two pairs of warm soft fuzzy socks.

Last week, when we took a family cruise to Alaska, the socks I ended up wearing not only created a story for the moment, but became part of memories I will pull up in the future.

The ages in our group ranged from five to seventy-five. I wasn’t the oldest, but I easily was the group’s cattle herder. Before we sailed, I reminded everyone to bring passports, cold weather and rain gear (and of course our coldest day was 72 degrees and the only time it rained was once while we were sleeping), and other essentials. I chided, sent e-mails, and while packing managed to leave my air pushed out of it plastic bag of socks on the dining room table.

I arrived on the ship with only the striped sneaker socks I was wearing, but never fear, cruise ships sell everything. That is why I am now the owner of pink and purple socks that all say Alaska and have moose heads, full sized mooses, bears, and something I’m not sure of on them.

Each morning, as I pulled on a pair of these socks, they reminded me I was sharing Alaska with people who matter to me more than anything else. The animals, background mountains, and whatever it was on one pair that I wasn’t sure of, also made a statement that this would be a day of new experiences and beautiful terrain.

Our most varied day was in Juneau. For us, it was the day of the glaciers. Joel and I took the most sedate way of seeing them – busing and hiking to lookout points, but even from a distance, the beauty of massive pieces of ice broken from the main glacier fascinated me. What I saw and the ranger’s movie made me ever so much more aware of global warming because of how the glacier itself has receded. My daughter and her husband kayaked out to the glacier; my two sons took a float plane into the glacier area; and our five year old grand-daughter and her parents visited a dog camp and rode a dog sled. Everyone came back to the ship impressed by what we experienced.

From now on, whenever I put on a pair of my Alaskan socks, I will remember the looks of happiness everyone had while telling me about their day.

My initial anger at forgetting my socks has been replaced by the stories my new ones will always unlock. Whenever I see the pink moose or either "Moose Hug" or "Alaska" on my socks, memories and scenes from the cruise will be triggered – much as words create mental images in a good book, short story or poem.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

My Murder Mystery Notes by Juliana Aragon Fatula

Dear Readers, 

I've taken some notes in my study of how to write a mystery and today I share some of them with you. These may be from one writer or several. I've read books by the following writers on writing mysteries:  

Linda Rodriguez' Plotting the Character Driven Novel recommends these books on writing: Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron's The Artists Way, Stephen King's On Writing: A memoir of the Craft, Madeleine L"Engle's A circle of Quiet, Leonard Bishop's Dare to Be a Great Writer, Elizabeth George's Write Away, One Writer's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Brenda Ueland's, If You Want to Write a Book About Art, independence, and Spirit, John Gardener's On Becoming A Novelist, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft: Exercise and Discussion on Story Writing for the  Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

On learning to read like a writer Linda Rodriquez suggests, "Read the first time the way any reader does for enjoyment and delight to find out what happens next. Then, read over and over, very slowly, Read and ponder. Read like a writer reads for techniques. These writers are our teachers...learn everything you can from them. Learn from the best. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own work...You're a writer. Think on paper." 

Deborah Coonts, "Give your characters one or two eccentricities. Too many weird traits and too many offbeat characters and they start to blend together. Make them memorable."

Roberta Isleib, "The writer must build an urgency to solve the crime into the character's history and psychology, your character should learn new things about herself, and she should change because of what she learns."

Deborah Turrell Atkinson, "The most interesting conflicts usually combine internal and external threats and examine the reactions under pressure. The protagonist learns skills and acquires wisdom throughout the story, so t hat she/he is prepared for the final confrontation. She needs to grow and change. Add the unexpected. Life does that. 

John Westerman, "Imagine a mixed gender of adults you know well, concentrate on their faults, weaknesses and exaggerate them. Do the same for their modest strengths. What divides them? Brings them joy or sorrow? Some will be brave but some will have hands that shake and voices break during confrontation. Now imagine these people as cops and hand them badges and guns and the power to cause great harm on themselves and others. Send them on a noble mission."

Mathew Dicks, "As a write you must be willing to step into the darkness. A villains life is never simple. Villains are not without villains. Remember this."

Hallie Ephron, "Choose details to reveal character. How does she/he stand, sit, walk, run? How does she/he show anxiety, upset, frustrations, elation, or surprise? Include some at outset and layer more as story moves forward. Fill the fictional world your character inhabits with props. If you carefully choreograph details, you choose to put on page, you can reveal protagonists and her/his backstory in layers. Etch her possessions and setting in your mind."

1. Treat your protagonist like you hate her/him. No struggle beans boring story. Obsessions, bad choices, faulty judgements, trust wrong people, blind to people and things that might help to solve murder investigation, believes in betrayers, obstacles to solving homicide, wrong direction, delay/damage, make things bad and then worse, scandal, blind to real motive, danger, disasters, storms, injury, failures, betrayal, thwart the desire, use physical injury, mechanical failures, rejection...

2. A scene many never be written just to kill time or provide atmosphere and must fulfill more than one purpose, advance our understanding of character, must move story forward, escalation, and conflict, tension, two reversals that work against protagonists efforts, the last so serious it feels thee is no way to overcome, raise the stakes, make it harder....

3. Stories begin at the moment of change, force protagonist to correct, gain, prevent, a threat from happening. The story of that struggle coincidences can never be used to help protagonist but will be believable if they favor the antagonist (killer). Fail or win at a terrible cost that it hardly feels like a win, a victory. The ending must be earned by protagonists' efforts, sacrifices, leading to their growth as a person. 

4. Make protagonist run a gauntlet of fear and hates, plan a scene around each of them. Design your story structure to fit the kind of story you're writing, make use of characters' flaws, vulnerabilities, fears, and desires, conflict with obsessions, passions, secrets of other characters...

5. Make sure each scene has a beginning question, conflict, resolution of some kind and a push toward next scene's question. Create rising tension in chapters through the book to the climax. 

6. Construct a situation where your protagonist is faced with a situation she/he cannot ignore. Establish the problem. Think of three lessons she/he must learn in order to vanquish the opponent. Don't make these easy, Give her/him some bruises. Think of three ways she/he gains wisdom. Does she/he listen to someone she scoffed at? Come up with three different twists that no one could be prepared for. They must be related to the issue. 

7. When you are feeling an emotion, take note of how it feels, in your head, in your gut, nerves. How are you breathing? How fatigued or excitable are you? Are you sweating? Tearful? Are you blushing? Repressing emotions is associated with physical sensations and external behaviors as well as expressing them, without vivid emotions there is no character arc. One whose emotions are well communicated can win reader's hearts...

Selected Readings

by Bethany Maines

This week I’m going to take part in a live reading event called Noir at the Bar.  It’s a fun event that focuses on crime tales and the forties pulp-fiction style.  I’m excited to participate, but as usual it throws me into a tizzy of what to read.  Short stories come in all shapes and sizes but reading for an audience is quite different.  Not every story translates well to an audience that’s slurping their way through cocktails and appetizers. I would, of course, love an audience to hang breathless on my every word, but even when an audience comes specifically to see an author it’s very hard to get that level of studiously quiet audience participation. 
Through the variety of readings that I have experienced I’ve developed the theory of “joke” short stories for readings.  Not that a reading has to be funny, but that it should be constructed like a joke.

There is the set-up. 
A man walks into a bar at the top of a rise building.  It’s a swanky place, but there’s a guy in a suit and glasses slumped at the bar.

The tale. 
I can’t believe this view,” says the man, looking out the window.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to look out for the cross-winds.  They’re killer,” says the drunk guy, brushing a curl of dark hair off his forehead.
“What are you talking about?” asks the man.
The drunk guy stumbles off his bar stool.  “Here I’ll show you.”  He opens the window and steps out, but the winds sweep in and he simply hovers in air and then steps back into the bar.
“Holy cow,” says the man.  “I can’t believe that.”
“Give it a try,” says the guy in glasses.

The pay-off.
The man steps off the building and plummets to the ground.  The bartender looks up from polishing the glasses as the drunk guy sits back down.  “Jeez, Superman, you are mean when you drink.”

The story has to have a pay-off or the audience sort of stares at you like cows in a field.  It doesn’t have to be a funny pay off, but there has to be some sort of solid finish that gives an audience a feeling of conclusion.  Usually, it's some sort of twist that reveals the truth or that gives the audience the key to understanding the story. I'll be reading a condensed version of a short story from my Shark Santoyo story.  Hopefully, Noir at the Bar enjoys what I’ve selected for them.  Wish me luck!

Bethany Maines is the author of the Carrie Mae Mystery Series, Tales From the City of Destiny, San Juan Islands Mysteries, Shark Santoyo Crime Series, and numerous short stories. When she's not traveling to exotic lands, or kicking some serious butt with her fourth degree black belt in karate, she can be found chasing her daughter or glued to the computer working on her next novel. You can also catch up with her on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Down with--yes, down with--cell phones

By AB Plum

Here goes another rant on a social phenomenon I dislike more than back-to-back TV commercials or politicians who lie to the public or the constant pop-up ads on Google, FB, AOL and everywhere else on the Internet.

Smart phones go to the top of my Bleh List every time.
Smart phones are ubiquitous.
Smart phones are addictive.
Smart phones may not cause brain cancer, but they impair the judgment of more and more users. A few examples:
·         walking in front of traffic with faces in phones,
·         going to the bathroom with phones,
·         going to bed with their phones,
·         texting while driving,
·         talking while driving,
·         checking the Internet or email while driving,
·         checking phone hundreds of time a day,
·         eating meals with friends/family while checking phones,
·         giving young children phones as gifts/rewards,
·         spending more time on the phone than with face-to-face people,
·         playing on-line games for more than an hour/day
·         using a smart phone for games during a memorial service

Uh-huh! I witnessed this last example two weeks ago at the funeral service for my long-time critique partner. In a standing-room only environment, one of the mourners clicked his “smart phone” throughout the service. From my vantage point, I’d swear he was playing games … but, admittedly, I am jaded.

And. Lest I seem like a total luddite, I’ll mention the ubiquitous presence of 
smart phones at a recent rally for reunifying immigrant families. Taking picture to capture the event for now and posterity seemed like a good use of smart phones. Giving those who couldn’t attend the rally seemed like a good use of smart phones. Sharing pictures and recordings on social media to get out the message seemed like a good use of smart phones.

So does the good judgment at the rally outweigh the bad judgment in the case of my friend’s funeral?

What do you think?
What would you have done at the funeral—before/during/after?

***AB Plum lives and writes in the heart of Silicon Valley. She owns a cell phone with no bells or whistles and uses it only in emergencies. Smart phones appear infrequently in The MisFit Series her dark, psychological thrillers. Writing as Barbara Plum in WEIRd MAgIC, her paranormal romance trilogy, witches and warlocks rely more on magic than smart phones.