Monday, June 27, 2016

An Interview with Shawn Reilly Simmons by Paula Gail Benson

Shawn Reilly Simmons has an impressive resume. Born in Indiana, she grew up in Florida and graduated from the University of Maryland with a BA in English. She's worked as a sales executive, bookstore manager, fiction editor, convention organizer, wine consultant, and caterer. Since 2003, she's served on the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. Those who have attended the annual meeting near Washington, DC, have seen Shawn calmly overseeing the registration desk or confidently moderating terrific panels. In addition, she's a founding member of the Dames of Detection and an editor at Level Best Books, which publishes the Best New England Crime Stories Anthologies.

Oh, and did I forget to say that she's the author of the Red Carpet Catering Mysteries (published by Henery Press) that features Penelope Sutherland, a movie set caterer, and has contributed the short story "A Gathering of Great Detectives" to the Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional Anthology? Not to mention that she's Mom to an adorable fellow named Russell.

Obviously, Shawn knows how to prioritize so she gets lots of things done and done well. Many thanks to her for taking time to visit with us and tell us how she manages everything so beautifully.  

Have you always loved writing?
Yes! I've wanted to be a writer, in some capacity, since I was in elementary school. I won Best Creative Writer when I graduated from high school, and I was encouraged by my professors in college to pursue writing as a career, so it was always an aspiration of mine. The trick was making that aspiration a reality.

Many of us know you as one of the smiling faces of the Malice Domestic convention. How did you become involved with Malice?
I got involved with Malice when I met Anne Murphy, our Volunteer Chair, at a panel during Malice 14. She was a Reilly before she was a Murphy, and she was curious if we were somehow related. Next thing I knew, I was invited to meet with the Board, and I accepted the vacant PR Chair position the following year. Fifteen years later, I'm still there, which is crazy--not that I'm still there, but that so much time has passed. It feels like yesterday! 

How has Malice influenced your writing?

I got involved with Malice because traditional mysteries are my favorite stories to read, and to write, it turns out. I've learned more than I can begin to say from the authors I've met, the friendships I've made, and the advice I've been given by so many writers and fans I admire. I think I would still be writing stories if it weren't for Malice, but I'd probably be flailing around trying to find my way.
You've had many diverse work experiences. How did you start catering for filmmakers? 

My sister is a chef, and started cooking on movie sets right after graduating from culinary school. Over the years, I would go and help her in the kitchen when she needed an extra set of hands. She had transitioned into being a personal chef and was in between clients when the on-set catering company she'd previously worked for began filming a movie in the DC area. I was freelance editing at the time, so we were both available, and were hired to be part of the crew. Like so many things for me, it was a matter of luck and being available when different opportunities presented themselves.

Tell us about your protagonist, Penelope. How much of you is in her character?
Penelope Sutherland is chef-owner of Red Carpet Catering, an on-set movie catering business. She shares a house with her best friend, up-and-coming actress Arlena Madison, who is one of the many children of acting icon Randall Madison. Penelope is like me in some ways: she's loyal, hardworking, and loves to cook. She's younger than me, and has a bit more confidence than I did at her age, which is working out for her so far.

What do you plan for Penelope's future? 

Penelope is building up her catering business, and she's going to get bigger and better opportunities based on her skill and business sense, not just because she's along for the ride with the Madison family. She's going to have some setbacks too, both personally and professionally, like we all do. Penelope is also embarking on a romantic relationship with her friend from grade school, Joseph Baglioni, who also happens to be a Homicide Detective for New Jersey PD. They both work crazy hours--Penelope is on set sixteen hours a day sometimes, and is often away on location for months at a time. Penelope and Joey have to make the time they do have together special, which doesn't always work out perfectly, but they're sticking with it. 

Your novels have been published by two sources. Tell us about your publication journey. 

I wrote my first book after I had my son and decided to stay home with him. I wasn't sure if I could even write a mystery, or if it would be any good, but I had my characters set in my mind, and I had never read anything about on-set catering before, so I felt I had a fresh take on the movie industry. What I didn't have was an idea about how to proceed to publication when my manuscript was finished. I decided to publish through an offshoot of my mother's publishing company, mostly for friends and family, and didn't do much else with the book after that. To my surprise, people (other than my family) read it and liked it, and I was approached by an agent (at Malice, of course). She said she could definitely sell my book to one of the big five publishers, but I had to write the second one quickly, so they could see I could carry a series. I did what she asked, and then heard back from the agent that the publisher loved the idea of working with me, and that I was a strong writer, but that books about movies hadn't worked well for them in the past. They wanted me to think of another series idea and get writing it quickly. 
I had just finished my second book, and was on the fence about what to do. I went the same route as the first one with it, and began toying with the idea of conceiving a new series. I basically had to decide whether to abandon Penelope and the gang, who I had grown to love, or move on to something the editors at the large publishing house considered more marketable. A few weeks later, I approached Henery Press (at Malice, of course), and was thrilled that they were interested in the Red Carpet Catering books. They signed me and I re-wrote the first two books under the guidance of my editorial team, and wrote the third book (from scratch). That book is Murder on a Designer Diet, which was just released on June 7th. I'm so glad I was able to find a welcoming home for Penelope & Company.

In addition to your delightful series, your short story appears on the recent Malice anthology. How is writing a short story different from writing a novel? 

You know, I hadn't written a short story since college, and hadn't thought about writing them seriously. A year or so ago some local friends hosted a short story pot luck dinner where everyone brought a dish and read an original story they'd written. I had so much fun coming up with something for my friends, it got the juices flowing again, and I decided to give the blind submission for the Malice anthology a try. I was happily surprised that my story was selected, to say the least. Now I'm working on a few different short stories, for different projects.

Also, you have a new venture with the Dames of Detection and Level Best Books. Tell us about this experience, particularly what it's like to be an editor. 

Yes! We're very excited to be the new editors of Level Best Books, which publishes the annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology. I'd seen a note on Facebook that the previous editors were planning to release their final anthology, and that they weren't continuing the series. The Dames felt the anthologies are such a great tradition, and so many authors have gotten their start there, that we decided to approach the previous editors about keeping them going. Luckily all eight of us agreed to everything, so we transitioned over this year. Our first anthology, Windward, received 225 submissions, and we're just about through our blind evaluation process. We'll have our final decisions made by mid-July. Being an editor is very fun, while also a lot of work. We plan to do at least two anthologies next year, and are all in agreement to do even more going forward.

How do you balance your many responsibilities and still find time for writing? 

Some days are more successful than others! But I do tend to be a scheduler and a list maker. I work hard to keep everything organized and on track. I get up early to write, usually at 5. I'm most productive and creative during that quiet time. Later in the day I'm either working on Malice, editing for the anthologies I'm involved with, or performing other tasks related to the books. Then there's the regular life stuff: being a good wife & mom, managing the household, getting dinner on the table. And I always make time for myself: I read every day and get in a workout of some kind. It's safe to say I'm never bored!

Does Russell enjoy having a writer for a Mom?

He does! He says every morning: "Daddy went to work, I'm going to school, and Mommy works on the computer." He's actually started writing stories of his own--one of his teachers has really been encouraging him at school. We started reading together every night when he was six weeks old, and by the time he was 3 1/2 he had learned to read, which was so exciting. We still read every night--it's such an ingrained habit now, the main part of our bedtime ritual. We've been sick, we've gone to bed really late, but no matter what, we always end the day with a book. 

Shawn, thank you for taking the time to be with us. Check out Shawn's website at:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Taking Care of You!

Take Care of You! by Debra H. Goldstein

I am not a good nurse. In fact, I am a b, which rhymes with witch, but then again I am married to a man who isn’t much of a patient.

Last week, he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee for a torn meniscus. Note: arthroscopic surgery is not a knee replacement. It hurts, but not nearly as much as a knee replacement. He gets my sympathy because I know it hurts and this is the third time in the last fifteen years he has had a knee scoped (he tore it the first time when he used to run nine miles a day; the second time during a random stumble; and this time probably being on the treadmill too much). I did mention that he isn’t a good patient, didn’t I?

Anyway, this was a same day surgery. The entire procedure took about fifteen minutes – prepping
and post-surgery recovery made up most of the time he was at the hospital. He came home on a walker (neither of us is good with crutches) already allowed to be weight bearing as tolerated. At that point, he collapsed on the bed (after having lunch because he was a bit hungry).

I dutifully kept his knee iced, brought him drinks and snacks, and did the things necessary, but after a few days, I was ready for him to be well or at least a little more self-sufficient. Maybe it is because I can remember how I was after I had the same surgery. I was groggy the first day, obedient with my exercises the second day, and pretty much back and going within a few days. I didn’t have a choice.

Mothers don’t have a choice. We keep on running because secretly we run the house, the world, our kids, our spouse, and anything else that needs to be taken care of. We take care of ourselves last. That’s why the commercials about moms getting sick hit home – the Mom can’t and won’t allow herself to stop to be sick. Too many people depend upon her.

The best example I’ve seen of this is a film made by the American Heart Association starring the mom from Modern Family. In the clip, the obvious working woman is juggling a business call, making her kids lunch, finding her husband’s tie and getting the children off to school. Suddenly, she feels tightness in her chest, discomfort, and begins sweating, but she ignores everything because she is Mrs. Mom. Her ability to spread the peanut butter, get the kids out the door, put the dishes up, and do other simultaneous chores deteriorates, but she assures everyone she is fine. Her son doesn’t believe her and shows her on his phone that she is having the symptoms of a heart attack. She disagrees. She doesn’t have time for that. He dials 911 and hands her the phone. While the kids leave for school and the voice says the paramedics will be there immediately, she looks up from the floor at the now messed up house and asks, “Could you make it ten minutes, so I can clean up a little?”

It is a classic piece that reminds us we, as women, need to take care of ourselves. As writers juggling families, households, jobs, social media and deadlines, we sometimes forget to look in the mirror and say, “I care about you. I need to stop and take care of you.” Please do! It’s important. Be a B, with a capital B for yourself. And btw, my husband is doing better and didn’t even notice (or at least he better not admit if he did) I was being a b, which rhymes with witch.   

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Clicking Our Heels - What We Hate Most About Computers

Clicking Our Heels – What We Hate Most About Computers

I’ve had that kind of day! (Debra speaking) My computer ate my words written for the day before deciding frozen was the position it would like to be in. Even though I normally love computers, today, I asked my fellow Stiletto Gang members “What they hate most about computers?” Here’s what they said:
Dru Ann Love: The updates and how it messes with my settings.
Bethany Maines: The thing I hate most about computers is that I can’t punch them. I want to start a business selling nerf computer replicas that come with their own baseball bat.
Juliana Aragon Fatula: They aren’t faithful. I have a relationship with a new computer on average about once a year and they are unfaithful and I have to move on and go with a younger, newer model. Sometimes I hate the fact that they make me want to pick them p and throw them out the window or at the very least take a stiletto to the screen.
Kay Kendall: Just when I get used to and comfy with a program, the company that produces it changes it radically, then all the PCs move to favoring that, and then I have to learn the new program. It is invariably trickier and just does more things that I don’t really need. Annoying!

Jennae M. Phillippe: The update cycle. I’ll be fresh and excited to start working on a project, turn on the computer, and have to wait like 20 minutes for the thing to update. Or worse, I’ll be in mid-project which it does one of those mandatory shut down thingies. Totally throws me off.

Linda Rodriguez: I hate that some programs (I’m looking straight at you, Microsoft Word) try to make decisions for me that I want to make for myself.
Paffi Flood: Nothing, now that I have an Apple J.

Paula Benson: That computers understand so many things intuitively, except how to fulfill my needs.
Marilyn Meredith: What I hate most about computers is what I have to learn how to do something new – which seems to happen too often.
Sparkle Abbey: We don’t know what we do without computers. We work on them, we write on them and we use them to keep in touch with each other. We both think we’re pretty computer savvy, but there have been a couple of times when the computer has eaten a work in progress or not saved it correctly. That’s frustrating!