Inspiration for My Short Stories

Sometimes, as an author I am asked where I get ideas for my short stories. I get my inspiration from books and articles I read, places I visit, and events in the world around me. The six new short stories in Arson Vibes and Other Tales, which came out recently, can all be traced to these sources.

ArsonVibesAZBThe story Victorian Vibes features my characters Lea and Kamika finding a gory, sealed room inside of a house under renovation. This story, which opens the collection, was inspired by a driving tour of Victoria, Texas, an old Spanish colonial town south of San Antonio. Victoria is home to more than 114 historic properties all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are mostly restored architectural gems. A driving tour through town will take visitors past 80 of them. Creating a similar house with a haunted past and ‘bad vibes’ for my characters to explore wasn’t a difficult task.

Feline Vibes, the second story in the collection, features Lea and Patrick trying to solve a murder in which the police have made no progress. The story was inspired by the many scattered properties I’ve driven past in the Texas Hill Country on the way to Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock State Park. The natural beauty of the area draws hikers and campers and people looking to escape the fast-paced life of city living. But the isolating hills, cactus, and long distances between neighbors also make a wonderful backdrop for murder.

abstract-2726482_1280Texas Frontier Vibes was partially inspired by reading the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. The long and bloody battle between the Comanches and every wave of settlers that tried to take their land is fertile ground for ghost stories. In the story, a collection of arrow heads is bound to the ghost of the person who died being shot with the arrows. While the injuries sustained by the character in the story are drawn directly from history, the idea that the arrow heads could be haunted was inspired by my father’s inheritance of a collection of points, axes, scrapers, and other stone tools from his deceased brother who had been a lifelong collector of these items.

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Monument to Columbia, by Pixabay

Space Shuttle Vibes owes its existence to my memory of the disaster involving the Space Shuttle Columbia when it came apart catastrophically over Texas in 2003. That accident led to the largest search and recovery effort ever carried out in the United States and is well-detailed and explained in a book that I read entitled Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. Sixty percent of Columbia remains lost in the swamps and thickets of East Texas. This fact inspired my tale of a man who dedicates his retirement and apparently part of his afterlife to finding and returning the pieces.

Museum Vibes, the story of a haunted living history pioneer farm, was inspired partially by my interest in all things historical, from gold-rushes and frontier life to the tuberculosis epidemic that plagued the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also based on my many visits to pioneer farms with living history exhibits in the Dallas area and in the Austin area. What ghosts wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looked and felt like the time period in which they lived?

The final story in the collection, Arson Vibes, was inspired by a terrible fire that engulfed a lovely wood-frame church in a small community in Texas a few years ago. Texas has a number of famous, painted churches built by European immigrants in the late 1800 and early 1900s. The Painted Churches Tour in Texas is a great way to see a handful of them. While the fire in the real church was accidental, the one in my story is, of course, an act of arson which needs my investigative crew to solve it.  And old churches, with their adjacent graveyards, should come with a ghost or two, shouldn’t they?

These new stories in the collection Arson Vibes and Other Tales are on sale this week, May 4 to 11, 2020. At the moment the stories are only available on Amazon, later in the summer they will be available from other retailers. I would have the stories available everywhere, but the coronavirus and its attendant issues have put a crimp in my schedule at the moment.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Have you ever fallen down the research rabbit hole when looking for details for your writing?

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by Pixabay

I have. Because I read extensively in a variety of nonfiction areas, I usually know where to look for information that I want to include in my novels and stories. However, my extreme curiosity, while helpful in writing, is a dangerous thing when researching. It’s very easy to fall down the internet research rabbit hole. While searching for a simple detail I need, I may find one article that leads me to another and another. Before I know it, I’ve lost an hour reading fascinating articles when all I really needed was a single detail for a single sentence in a story.

In my Bad Vibes Removal Services series, the character of Lea, who sees ghosts and is ultra-sensitive to other people’s emotions and moods, is a student of ancient history who is working to earn her master’s degree. As a student of history, she is particularly interested in studying the daily habits of people in ancient civilizations. She is fascinated by hair styles, clothing styles, perfumes, and hygiene practices from bygone eras. Her interest in the subject drives her to try ancient clothing styles, hairdos, and makeup as a hobby.

When I chose this pastime for the character, I foresaw that I would have to do some research to bring the character to life. For each successive story, I had to add details about what historical look Lea was trying on herself. Sometimes, I chose simple things, like kohl around her eyes in an ancient Egyptian look. More complicated styles I researched, looking for scholarly articles on ancient hair styles.

For example, in the book Degrees of Deceit, Lea wears her hair in a Suebian knot, a typically male hairstyle described by Tacitus in the first century as being worn by certain Germanic tribes. I was familiar with this hair style because an interest in mummies led me to read articles about bog bodies. Bog bodies are corpses recovered from peat bogs, some of which were mummified and showed signs of having been murdered.

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Osterby Man with Suebian knot

To put details about the Suebian knot hairstyle in my book, searched for what I remembered seeing in a picture, an odd looping hairstyle on the side of the head of a partially mummified skull from a bog body. So I found the picture I remembered, Osterby Man’s head with its peat-dyed reddish-orange hair. That led me to another article I hadn’t seen before, the Dätgen Man, who also wore a Suebian Knot, but his hair loop was on the back of his head. That led me to the hair on other bog bodies including one with a 90-centimeter braid tied in a complex knot. After that I lost lots of time down the rabbit hole of bog bodies. Here is a link to a list of bog bodies for the curious.

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Bust of a Roman woman, from the Met Collection

Statues and portrait busts from ancient Greece and Rome provided another great resource for hairstyles for my character Lea. The plethora of material from these ancient civilizations has been a wonderful source of details for my writing. However, because of the enormous volume of information, it’s very easy to get lost, even lose hours of time, in reading. I’ve read about the plaster casts of victims of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, some of which are so detailed you can see clothing and hair outlines. I’ve read about lower class hairstyles and upper-class hairstyles, children’s clothing, and hygiene practices, far more information than I’ll need for my stories.

Then, I really fell down the research rabbit hole. I found Janet Stephens’ helpful YouTube channel videos. As a hairstyle archaeologist, she walks the viewer through creating an array of ancient hairstyles. This is exactly the kind of thing my character Lea would love. For those who want to join me down the rabbit hole, watch a few of Ms. Stephens’ videos. They are fascinating.

How about you? Have you ever “fallen down the rabbit hole” while looking something up on the internet? If you haven’t, please tell me how you avoid that pitfall.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Death in Small Town Texas: Who Collects the Body?

Mystery authors deal in death. They must get the details correct when writing about the untimely demise of a character. Because laws for responding to death vary by location in reaper-2026350_640the United States, authors have to do research depending on their setting. Without a national standard, each state and frequently each county within a state sets its own rules for handling unexpected deaths. In January, Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas Chapter was fortunate to have Tiffany Cooper-Aguilar, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, walk authors through the legalities of collecting, handling, and storing bodies after death in small town Texas.

In Texas, the handling of medically unattended deaths varies by county population. Larger, more populous counties are required by law to have a medical examiner’s (ME) office. The ME’s office collects the bodies of those who die outside of a medical facility, abstract-2726482_640and the medical examiner determines the cause of death. Less populous counties aren’t legally required to have medical examiner’s offices. They rely on contracted mortuary services or funeral homes to collect the bodies of the dead. Lacking a medical examiner, these counties rely on a justice of the peace to decide if a cause of death is apparent or if a body should be sent for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

According to Ms. Cooper-Aguilar, in central Texas alone, laws and practices vary considerably by county. Some counties may have a single funeral home contracted to retrieve all bodies. Other counties may have several funeral homes contracted on a rotational basis. One county is even known to force family members to choose a funeral home as soon as a death is discovered to prevent the county from expending the funds needed to transport and store the body. Still other counties may use a mortuary service, which is a small company created specifically for collecting and storing the dead temporarily until a decision is made to either send the body to an autopsy or to send it to a funeral home for burial.

In counties where a funeral home is contracted, a licensed funeral director and one assistant director will go to the scene of the death to remove a body. Fire, EMS, and law hospital-1978209_640enforcement personnel in less populous counties leave the body where it is discovered, so that the funeral director and assistant have to go into water, fields, ditches, wrecked cars, or other locations to retrieve the decedent.

Depending on weight, the state of decomposition, rigor mortis, and traumatic injury, the funeral home employees may need a variety of items to collect a body. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar states that a plain white sheet is her best tool in these situations. A sheet can be knotted for gripping, is an aid in unwedging bodies in awkward locations, and is perfect for ensuring that the entire body stays together during removal.

In most cases the funeral home or mortuary services personnel will wrap the body in the white sheet first. Some counties, but not all, require the remains also be placed in a zip-tied body bag. The body is then transported to refrigerated storage until the justice of the peace’s official paperwork is completed determining the next steps in the process. During this storage time, the deceased remains untouched until the legal formalities are settled. Family is not allowed access to the body during this period.

body-4076102_640The justice of the peace orders autopsies when the cause of death is unknown or questionable. If an autopsy is required, the body will be transported to the medical practitioner responsible for carrying out the autopsy. Small counties may contract with larger counties to use their medical examiner for autopsies. After the autopsy is complete and the body is released for burial, the legal next of kin must sign a release allowing a funeral home to collect the remains from the medical examiner and prepare them for burial or cremation.

If no autopsy is ordered, the deceased is released for burial and the next of kin may choose funerary services with any funeral home. The decedent may be transferred between funeral homes at the family’s request.

death-2421821_640Burial may take place as soon as the family is ready. Texas law does not require embalming to occur before burial. Cremation, however, requires additional legal paperwork which can take up to two weeks to be completed. While reducing human remains to ash can be accomplished in a matter of hours, acquiring the paperwork needed to begin the process takes time. Getting authorization for cremation is a longer process because a buried body can be dug up and studied if foul play is suspected at a later date, a cremated one can’t.

Ms. Cooper-Aguilar provided highly detailed information about the legal handling of unexpected death in counties with small populations in Texas. She explained the steps required to prepare a body for identification by family and the entire embalming process, including discussing how the embalmer deals with a body from which tissues, organs, or bones have been donated. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar answered many questions from the audience, providing a thorough overview of the legal handling of death in small town Texas.

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All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is currently the president of Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

How to Submit Short Stories to Magazines, Anthologies, & Contests

With so many self-publishing options available to writers, no one has to submit work to a publisher to see it in print. However, magazines, anthologies, and contests provide opportunities for authors to reach new readers. Getting published in a magazine or anthology can be great targeted advertising and winning an award can bring attention to one’s work.

The basic steps to submitting fiction manuscripts to magazines, anthologies, and contests are as follows:

STEP 1: Find calls for submissions.

Check blogs and websites that aggregate information on contests, submission openings, and publishing markets.

door-1590024_640One great place to find publication openings is The Grinder, which provides a searchable database with no login or fee required. Another site, Submittable, posts calls for submissions and provides the submission system through which to submit your work. Both Submittable and The Grinder will allow you to track your submissions. You have to create a login to use the tracking systems for both sites, but it’s free.

A blog called Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity provides a running list of contests, calls for submissions, and open markets for writers. Many writers’ organizations, such as Mystery Writers of America, also keep lists of publishing markets on their websites. Upcoming conventions typically have anthologies associated with them, so check convention websites for submission information. Authors can also join Facebook groups or other online discussion sites that post calls for submissions.

STEP 2: Avoid scams.

Always check the background of publishers or contests to which you are considering submitting work. Make sure they are not scams. Check the internet for complaints! Check WRITER BEWARE.

road-sign-464653_640Avoid licensing rights grabs in click-through contracts. Some contests will try to claim rights to your work simply because you entered the contest. If the contest claims rights to your work, you might not be able to publish the work elsewhere even if you lose the contest. Most legitimate publishers and contests will revert rights to the author after some period of exclusivity. Examine what rights to your work the publisher or contest is seeking. Make sure the licensing rights requested are appropriate. Read the fine print to avoid being scammed.

STEP 3: Verify your work is appropriate for the publisher.

Each publisher tries to carve out a niche so that their readers know what to expect. Magazines will look for stories that match their chosen tone, style, and niche. You must match your work to the market’s niche and tone for a better chance at publication. Read samples of the work published by different magazines. If you are considering submitting to an online e-zine, read their stories. Get a feel for the market to make sure your work matches what the editor is publishing. Then, target the highest paying, professional markets first. You don’t want to send something to a token market that might have been picked up by a pro market!

STEP 4: Read the submission guidelines!

After you sort the options, you may have several legitimate places to submit your work. Now read the submission guidelines carefully. Some, but not all, publishers allow for “simultaneous submissions.” This means you can submit the same piece to multiple venues at once. Most don’t allow “multiple submissions”- sending them more than one piece at a time- so send your best work only.

social-1206610_640Format your submission as directed. For example, some editors request William Shunn’s manuscript format. Other editors will make you jump through hoops with specific word usage, margins, and spacing. Follow the directions precisely.

Some markets use submission systems such as Submittable to receive manuscripts. Others ask you to attach a file to an email. No matter which method is required, always verify the file formats accepted! Some publishers reject .docx files in favor of .doc.

Once you submit your work, wait to hear back. Consult The Grinder to find out average response times.

STEP 5: Get used to rejection.

If you submit your work for publication, you will be rejected at some point!

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Thousands of people submit work for publication every single day. Most will not be selected. Not being selected doesn’t mean that your work is bad. It only means that it wasn’t the right choice for someone at a given moment in time. Hold on to that work and resubmit it elsewhere. You may know of a place to submit it right away, or, in a year, you may see a call for submissions that fits your piece perfectly.

If you are worried about rejection, google “famous books rejected by publishers.” You will be amazed by the lists.

STEP 6: Continue submitting until you succeed!

As with most things in life, effort is required to achieve success. Don’t give up. Keep submitting work until you succeed.

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All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Bouchercon: It’s All About Community!

No one else in my family writes novels. When I talk about plotting and pacing, my husband gives me the same blank stare that I give him when he goes into detail about software architecture and development. However, my husband has community and coworkers available to him for discussing the intricacies of his work. Sitting at home at my desk, I didn’t have that same community available because writing is generally a solitary occupation. Writers have to go out of their way to find other writers with whom to socialize and talk shop.

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Beth Wasson, Sherry Harris, and me (N. M. Cedeno) at the SinC table at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Molly Weston

Recognizing the need for colleagues who understood my work, I sought out a local organization that I could join. My search brought me to a chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support the work of crime fiction writers like me. My local chapter, the Heart of Texas Chapter, provides monthly meetings on topics related to crime fiction and writing and creates a place to meet and talk to other crime fiction authors. Suddenly, I had colleagues with whom to discuss my work. I had found my people.

What I didn’t immediately realize was the extent of the community that I had joined. While I knew that other chapters of Sisters in Crime (SinC) existed around the world, I didn’t consider the larger writing community as a whole. Comfortable with my local community, the world community’s existence escaped my attention.

Never having attended one, I knew nothing about large conventions. I have never been a fan-girl, anxious to meet and shake the hand of my favorite authors. If I thought about my favorite authors at all, I would have assumed they were sitting at home, writing, like I was, and sometimes going out to meet with other local authors. Sure, some of the top 5% go on book tours, and children’s authors visit schools. But, I’d never imagined what it would look like if mystery writers and readers from across the country got together to meet, talk about crime fiction, and socialize.

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Helen Currie Foster and Peter Lovesey at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Then, Bouchercon came to my state.

Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers named after Anthony Boucher, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a massive conference in Dallas, Texas. The importance of the event dawned on me as I began to receive notifications from Sisters in Crime about the events that they would be holding during the convention. As a local chapter president, I was asked to attend the chapter presidents’ meeting to be held after the Sisters in Crime Breakfast on a Friday during the conference. With an invitation to attend, vote on important matters, and discuss issues facing chapters, I registered for the conference and signed up to attend the SinC breakfast.

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Rhys Bowen at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Arriving at the conference, I realized I’d walked into an event that looked like my local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings multiplied a hundred-fold in scale. Instead of local authors getting together to discuss topics and socialize for an hour or two, mystery writers and readers from all over the world came together to talk and socialize for 4 days. And almost everyone was friendly. I found myself riding in elevators with world-renowned editors, discussing the schedule with best-selling authors, and sitting with critically acclaimed international authors at breakfast.

When I could make my introverted-self attempt a conversation, each and every author I spoke to was polite, interested in talking to me, and happy to pose for pictures as I documented the event for my chapter newsletter.

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Me (N. M. Cedeno) and Anne Hillerman at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Helen Currie Foster

After attending lunches, breakfasts, dinners, award ceremonies, and many panel discussions with mystery authors and readers from around the world, I came home exhausted, but extremely happy to have been welcomed into the larger mystery community. While I won’t be able to attend massive mystery conferences every year, simply knowing that they exist is a boost to my spirits.

I look forward to the next time I’m able to join the larger mystery community and talk to colleagues from around the country and around the world. In the meantime, I hope to infuse my local Sisters in Crime meetings with the welcoming spirit and sense of community that I found at Bouchercon.

An Interview with Author Lois Winston

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Lois Winston

Award winning author, Lois Winston, has a new crafting mystery coming out for the holidays! She has kindly allowed me to interview her about her writing and to present her upcoming book, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide.

1.   Tell us about your series and your latest book.
Although I’ve written in various genres in the past, I currently write the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, a humorous cozy series that debuted in 2011. There are now seven novels and three novellas. The eighth novel, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, is currently available for pre-order and will be released October 1st.

Anastasia, a women’s magazine crafts editor, lived a typical suburban middle-class life with her husband and two sons until her husband permanently cashed in his chips in Las Vegas. Turns out the guy was a closet gambler who left her with debt greater than the GNP of Uzbekistan. (The wife is always the last to know.) And did I mention the loan shark wants his money—or else? Anastasia is one step away from losing her home and moving her family into a cardboard box on a street corner.

It would be an extremely crowded cardboard box, given that along with her teenage sons, her household includes her communist mother-in-law, her much-married mother, her mother’s cat, her mother-in-law’s dog, and Ralph, the Shakespeare-quoting parrot. Plus, there’s Zack Barnes, a photojournalist who rents the apartment above Anastasia’s garage and who has wormed his way into her life. Zack is the one good thing that has happened to Anastasia over the past year, except she suspects he’s a spy.

And then there are the dead bodies that keep showing up as Anastasia tries to stave off the bill collectors, transforming this magazine crafts editor into a reluctant amateur sleuth.

      2. What is the most challenging part of the business of writing for you?
Finding new and different ways to kill people. 😉

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Image by Pixabay

3. Tell us about your main character. What inspired you to create this character?
I was writing romance, romantic suspense, and chick lit when one day an editor told my agent she was looking for a crafting cozy mystery series. Knowing my day job was as a designer and editor in the consumer crafts industry, my agent thought I’d be the perfect person to write such a series. So I gave it a try and have never looked back.

In many ways, Anastasia is my alter ego. We’re both Jersey girls with two sons (although mine are no longer teenagers) and have had similar careers. I also had a communist mother-in-law, which led to the creation of Anastasia’s mother-in-law. But my husband doesn’t gamble, is still very much alive, and I’ve never discovered a dead body—yet.

     4. You are a member of Sisters in Crime. Do you feel membership in writers’ groups is important to a writer? How does it help you?
One of the greatest benefits of writers’ groups is being able to network with other writers and learn from them. When I began writing, I didn’t realize how little I knew until I joined several writing organizations and became educated, both in craft and the business end of writing. Not only did I find my agent at a writing organization’s annual conference, I have found friendships that I know will last the rest of my life.

     5. What do you read for fun?
Aside from mysteries, I enjoy historical fiction, biographies, women’s fiction, and anything that makes me laugh.

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Be sure to read Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 8 !

Ho-Ho epub cover-72Two and a half weeks ago magazine crafts editor Anastasia Pollack arrived home to find Ira Pollack, her half-brother-in-law, had blinged out her home with enough Christmas lights to rival Rockefeller Center. Now he’s crammed her small yard with enormous cavorting inflatable characters. She and photojournalist boyfriend and possible spy Zack Barnes pack up the unwanted lawn decorations to return to Ira. They arrive to find his yard the scene of an over-the-top Christmas extravaganza. His neighbors are not happy with the animatronics, laser light show, and blaring music creating traffic jams on their normally quiet street. One of them expresses his displeasure with his fists before running off.

In the excitement, the deflated lawn ornaments are never returned to Ira. The next morning Anastasia once again heads to his house before work to drop them off. When she arrives, she discovers Ira’s attacker dead in Santa’s sleigh. Ira becomes the prime suspect in the man’s murder and begs Anastasia to help clear his name. But Anastasia has promised her sons she’ll keep her nose out of police business. What’s a reluctant amateur sleuth to do?

Available  for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo.

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USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. 

Find Lois at www.loiswinston.com

Writing an Academic Mystery

 

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My books by Dorothy Sayers. Picture by N. M. Cedeño

Academic mysteries are a timeless subgenre in crime fiction. Found on almost every list of the best mysteries ever written, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night is the epitome of British academic mysteries and is one of my favorite books. Several British mystery series that have been adapted for television are set in the university towns of Oxford or Cambridge with students and professors as witnesses and suspects. Academic mysteries fill a popular niche in the world of crime fiction.

While I enjoy academic mysteries, I never planned to write one. Instead, I fell into it. When I was creating my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series and fleshing out my characters, I blithely imagined my main character Lea to be a graduate student in history who happened to have the ability to see ghosts and the ability to sense the emotional history of a location. Since I made her a grad student, I assigned Lea to my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After writing several short stories in the series, I decided to write a novel. That first novel, The Walls Can Talk, was set in an Irish castle that had been moved to central Texas, bringing its resident ghost with it. In that book, I developed a subplot involving Lea’s graduate work. When I sat down to write the second book in the series, Degrees of Deceit, I realized that I wanted to extend Lea’s story line and that the natural setting would be the campus at U.T. Austin. Suddenly, I was writing an academic mystery.

Three quarters of the way into the first draft, a question popped into my head. I realized that most of the books set at real universities were British. I wondered, why don’t American authors set books at real academic institutions? I consulted Google, looking for an answer. And, I discovered that authors in the United States don’t set mysteries at known universities for fear of being sued for “disparaging” the universities.

Which led me to think, British authors do it all the time. Don’t British authors fear being sued?

Back to Google. And, yes, British authors fear being sued too. But British authors have a simple solution to avoid legal action because British universities are organized differently than American universities. Oxford, for example, currently has 39 colleges that are separate entities within the larger university. British authors avoid getting sued by creating fictional colleges. This allows British authors to use the well-known buildings, landscapes, and towns around the real universities while centering the plot in a fake college. Dorothy Sayers even placed a hefty author’s note at the beginning of Gaudy Night explaining how she did this.

Lacking this option, many American authors resort to creating thinly veiled, fictional versions of the university that they want to use as a setting. Consequently, American readers almost never get to read crime novels set among the famous buildings of extant American universities.

Having previously written paranormal and science fiction mysteries, I knew nothing of the complicated legal machinations used by other authors in writing academic mysteries. When I started writing my academic mystery, I jumped into the writing completely blind to the fraught legal matters associated with the genre.

Then, of course, when I discovered the possible legal ramifications, I panicked and stopped writing, afraid that I would have to rewrite my entire manuscript with a different setting. Then, I panicked again, realizing that I couldn’t move the setting to a nonexistent, fictional university because I’d already identified the university Lea attended in the previous, already-published books and stories. I couldn’t keep the story line without the setting.

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Image by Pixabay

In a state of dread, I called the U. T. Austin legal department, where a nice lady told me that I had the legal right to set a story at U. T. Austin as long as I avoided using the names of any actual university employees, past or present. I researched my characters names to see if they resembled any known employees. None did. Relieved, I finished writing the novel.

Still, a nagging worry grew in the back of my brain. I had nightmares that the answer the legal department woman gave me was too simple. If the answer was so easy, why did other authors avoid setting novels at universities? I asked a few lawyer friends their opinion on the matter. They told me I was right to be worried. The answer I was given was too simple. I could still get sued.

With a complete manuscript hanging in the balance, I set out to try to minimize any legal issues because I really had no intention of disparaging anyone. Most of the novel revolved around a single dorm on the U. T. campus, one that I had lived in as a student. I decided setting the story in a real dorm might be too risky. Someone might think I was writing about actual students in the actual dorm. I couldn’t create a fake college, but I could create a fake dorm. I decided to rename the dorm and set the story in a thinly veiled, fictional dorm instead of in a real one.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After renaming the dorm and changing some details associated with it, I sent the completed manuscript off to the editor for review. The editor liked my story and now my academic mystery is finally ready for publication. Following Dorothy Sayer’s lead, I’ve included a hefty author’s note explaining that the dorm and the story are entirely fictional. Degrees of Deceit comes out later this month.

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Find more about my books at nmcedeno.com or at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno