Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

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Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

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I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

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I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

The 2022 Writers’ Police Academy

by K.P. Gresham

I’ve just returned from the Writers’ Police Academy in Appleton, WI. The brainchild of retired cop, Lee Lofland, The Writers’ Police Academy (WPA) is a rare opportunity for writers to participate in the same hands-on training as the law enforcement officers, investigators, EMS, and firefighters.  Attendees drive patrol cars on closed courses, conduct traffic stops, participate in explosive building entries, shoot firearms, and much more.

Lee Lofland is a veteran police investigator who began his law-enforcement career working as an officer in Virginia’s prison system. He later became a sheriff’s deputy, a patrol officer, and finally, he achieved the highly prized gold shield of detective. Along the way, Lofland gained a breadth of experience that’s unusual to find in the career of a single officer. Oh! And as part of the latest Writers Digest Books Howdunit series, he wrote Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers.

He’s a cop who wants writers to “get the cop thing” right—and he created this phenomenal conference to make that happen.

Highlights for me (this was my 3rd WPA) started right off the bat with the first morning session. A drunken driver accident was staged, and the ensuing response acted out. Cops were first on the scene, followed quickly by fire trucks and EMT’s. (Real ones. The only actors were the two people “injured” in the accident. Umm, the dead victim was a life-size practice dummy…I’m pretty sure…) Triage, jaws of life, on-scene field sobriety tests—all of it. Then came the Life Flight helicopter.  And an hour worth of Q & A with all the professionals. Awesome.

Next, I went to the Body Camera Session, which, if you pardon the pun, was an eye-opening experience. I learned that the body camera sees a whole lot more than the wearer can see. Two examples. The camera has a much larger field of vision than the human eye. Also, the camera has the ability to adjust its iris so that it can see in very dark conditions. Sometimes what we see on TV from the camera’s POV, the cop couldn’t see at all.

Other things I learned? The choreography used by SWAT teams to secure a room; that breed means everything in K9 dog selections; (from personal experience using virtual reality scenarios) that when threatened, a person’s stress reaction is to focus specifically on the threat. Sounds logical, but when my “gun” was pointed at the guy with a knife coming toward me, I never saw a different guy walking up to my side. I was completely focused on what I perceived was the immediate threat.

Boom. I’m dead.

Special shout out to Jason Weber, the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Public Safety Training Coordinator. He recruited all the instructors, police officers, county sheriff officers, chiefs of police, municipal judges, and fire science instructors to be our teachers, as well as coordinating all the physical needs for our instruction.

And then there’s the fellow writers who attend WPA. We eat, travel, and learn together. The ability to be in the company of folks who understand the importance of research, the plotting, the writing, the marketing, the self-doubt, the exhilaration of putting a good scene on paper is overwhelming. I treasure these people, and I feel treasured by them—we are kindred spirits.

The conference ended with the 2022 WPA Guest of Honor, Robert Dugoni, the critically acclaimed New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite police series. Dugoni spoke to us about why we write. In my heart I felt a re-awakening of the passion for what I do.  Thank you, Mr. Dugoni.

And thank you, Lee Lofland and all of your crew. I’ll be back next year at WPA to learn more!

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Four Reasons to Die

Getting Texas Wrong in Fiction- Details Matter Y’all

Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Hollywood’s version of Texas and the actual Texas are very different places. Mostly, we Texans roll our eyes and dismiss the errors, but it’s difficult to ignore errors when they yank us out of whatever story we are trying to enjoy. Recently I watched a movie set in Texas and read several stories that were set in Texas or that featured Texan characters. However, as a Texan, I could tell the director of the movie didn’t care about getting the setting details right, and I could tell the authors of the stories didn’t understand Texan speech patterns. Errors distracted me from the plots in both the movie and the stories.

From Pixabay

On someone’s recommendation, I watched the Tom Hanks movie News of the World. I learned quickly that the director favored filming sweeping vistas and that the background and environment were essential to the plot. The director, unlike the author of the book on which the movie is based, clearly didn’t care about getting the setting details right. The movie got Texas disappointingly wrong, which distracted me from the story line several times.

The same standard holds true for literature as it does for movies. If you don’t get the details right, no matter how great your plot is, you can lose the reader. For example, in some stories I read recently featuring characters from Texas, the author used regional speech incorrectly. Specifically, the authors used the word “y’all” wrong.

A Word on the Meaning of “Y’all”

Lots of people are aware that Texans, and a lot of Southerners, say “y’all” as a term for the second person plural. And we do. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all” which means “all of you people.” No Texan would ever call a single individual “y’all.” Not ever. It’s a reference to a group, not an individual.

Word Cloud

Now, I may walk up to my brother and say “Y’all should come to lunch tomorrow.” He may be the only one standing there, but he will know from my usage of the word “y’all” that I’m including his wife and kids in the invitation. If I wanted him to come alone, I would say, “You should come to lunch tomorrow.”

Or one college student may say to another, “Y’all should come hang out at my place with us.” This translates to “you and your friends should come and hang out with me and my friends at my residence.” Only two people may be in the conversation, but the usage of the word “y’all” tells anyone listening that more people are involved than are present.

To reiterate: when a Texan says the word “y’all” to a single individual, they are referencing some group to which that individual belongs, and the individual being addressed will understand that group reference because the speaker used the word “y’all” instead of “you.”

Getting “Y’all” Wrong

Back to those stories I read that got things wrong: if a law enforcement officer in a story set in Texas walks up to a single suspect and says to that individual, “Y’all are under arrest,” then the author has failed miserably at using the word. That error will pull the Texan (and probably any Southern) reader completely out of the story.

From Pixabay

Or if a mystery author writes a story featuring a character who is supposed to be the only Texan in the story and has that character call an individual “y’all,” that author just created confusion. When I read the above instance in a story, I hoped the misusage of “y’all” was a clue that the character might be lying about her background. Alas, it wasn’t a plot point. It was an error by the author.

Details matter in story telling. When we get them wrong, we pull the reader out of the story, and, depending how egregious the error is, the reader may not come back.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Why I Go to Critique Group

by Kathy Waller

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.

She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

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Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.

We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.

Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.

Then we say, “Thank you.”

Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.

We encourage one another.

We also laugh a lot.

Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.

Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.

Because it’s important.

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Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,

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Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the anthologies pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last a novel co-written with Manning Wolfe, with Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.

End of Year Assessments and Thanksgiving

by N. M. Cedeño

For writers, setting and meeting goals can be done in a variety of ways. Some people count words produced in a given year. Others count finished manuscripts. This year I have been focused on my short stories, specifically on getting stories published, so I set goals for submitting my work to markets.

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal of submitting a minimum of two stories per month to publishing markets. This meant I had to write, edit, and proofread the stories, locate the markets, format each manuscript to each market’s specifications, and submit the stories via whatever process the publisher indicated. I met this goal, submitting 27 manuscripts to 19 publishing markets by mid-November.

As a result of this focus on sending my stories to markets and not just leaving them sitting on the computer, I have licensed four stories for publication this year. Another six are still under review.

Of the four accepted for publication, one was published in the October 2021 issue of After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy and Ethics Short Story Magazine. One will appear in a Crimeucopia anthology from Mysterious Ink Press called Say What Now? in March 2022. The other two are also slated to appear in 2022: one in Black Cat Mystery Magazine and one in an anthology called Groovy Gumshoes, although I don’t have publication dates for either yet.

Of these four stories, two are private detective stories. One is an amateur detective cozy mystery. One is a science fiction crime story. One story was accepted on its fifth submission. One story was accepted on its ninth submission. One story was accepted after ten submissions. And one was written for a specific call for submissions and accepted on the first try.

The shortest time it took for an editor to reject a story was six hours. The shortest wait for a story to be accepted was 40 days. The longest response time from a market on a submitted story for either an acceptance or rejection is currently at 404 days and counting. (Yep– that story was submitted in October 2020, and I still don’t have a response on it.)

Another writing goal I’d set for myself was to be invited to submit stories to closed submission calls. To meet this goal an editor would have to know and like my work well enough to reach out to me and ask me to submit a story directly to them. I expected it might take years to meet this goal which could only happen at some point after I started having stories accepted from open calls for submissions. To my surprise, I met this goal this year. I am thankful for that editor who liked my work enough to invite me to submit work directly to him.

And on the topic of thankfulness: I accomplished editing and proofreading for my stories with the help of critique partners, beta readers, and at least one sibling with an eye for plot and an unflinching willingness to point out flaws. Without people willing to read early drafts, I’d have to rely entirely on my own eye. And once I’ve read a story a hundred times, I can’t see the forest for the trees. Thanks to all the people willing to critique my work to help me improve my writing!

To all the wonderful people who support the work of writers everywhere, I want to say ‘THANK YOU!’ To the board members and volunteers who organize and plan meetings for the Heart of Texas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, to the people at national Sisters in Crime who create webinars and newsletters, to those who organize write-ins and meet-ups, to those who monitor listserv groups and organize monthly Zoom ‘watercooler’ discussions for the Short Mystery Fiction Society, thank you very much. Your work is much appreciated.

To the family members who cheer me on, to my husband and kids, to my parents and siblings, thanks for your support!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Don’t Delete “Unsuccessful” Manuscripts

By N.M. Cedeño

A number of the stories sitting in files on my computer were written years ago, some over ten years ago, and have never been published. At times, when cleaning up my laptop, I’ve been tempted to delete some of these old stories, but I restrain myself.

Don’t move those files to trash!

Most of these old manuscripts fall into three categories. The first category consists of early writing efforts that reflect my learning process. These stories are not publication-worthy, but the ideas aren’t all bad and may warrant revisiting. The second category contains stories that could be publishable, but still need work. These stories need revision to be ready for submission or publication, but aren’t finished because I haven’t found a solution to whatever needs fixing. The last category consists of stories that are finished, but that haven’t been published even after being submitted multiple times. These manuscripts tend to be stand-alone short stories because I usually self-publish the ones in my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series.

Instead of deleting these unsuccessful works, I hold onto them because I know someday I may determine how to fix the unfinished ones or I may see a call for submissions or a new market that fits the finished pieces.

For example, earlier this year I discovered a call for cozy mysteries was coming, and I knew I had an old story that might fit the guidelines. The piece was a Christmas mystery set during an ice storm with all the suspects trapped together. The first draft was written in 2011 or earlier. Around 2018, I reviewed the story, updated it, and tweaked the characters, giving them more depth than they’d had in the first draft. I also changed the ending several times before I declared the manuscript done and started submitting it to markets. It was rejected eight times.

from Pixabay

As I reread the story while considering whether it fit the new call for submissions, I changed one or two lines and double-checked the editing. Then, I submitted the story, and it was accepted for publication by Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The story will come out next year, but I don’t have a date yet. More details will be coming on this one later.

Another one of my stories, a science fiction crime piece entitled “The Wrong Side of History” that features a 130-year-old politician being blackmailed over the political stances he held in his youth, was first written in 2015 or 2016. This story was finished long ago and ready for publication. I held off submitting it anywhere, at first, because it didn’t quite fit any of the publication niches I could find. The story was set in a future, post-apocalyptic society that handled a number of problematic social issues differently than we do today. Those issues include topics that are politically divisive. For a brief time, the thought of being “canceled” also held me back from submitting the story.

Eventually, I decided not submitting the story out of fear of offending someone was cowardly and exactly matched the form of self-censorship described by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. I began submitting the story to magazines. Nine times the story was rejected. The rejections weren’t surprising since the story didn’t completely fit the niches available and because some magazines will shy away from difficult issues in stories.

After Dinner Conversation October 2021

Then, I found another market for the story, a magazine called After Dinner Conversation that specifically features short fiction that includes ethical and philosophical issues. After nine rejections, having the tenth response call the story a wonderful piece that the editor would love to publish was reason to get up and dance. It was nice to know that I was right. The story was ready for publication. I simply needed to find the right niche for it. And so the “Wrong Side of History” is now available for pre-order in the October issue of After Dinner Conversation.

And that is why I don’t delete “unsuccessful” old manuscripts. Sometimes they only need a few changes to be successful. Other times, they just need to find the right editor at the right magazine.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Working with Editors

by N. M. Cedeño

Nothing makes a writer feel more like a know-nothing novice than a marked-up manuscript from an editor. Whenever I get a document back from an editor, I take a deep breath before reading the comments because I know seeing the number of errors I made will knock the breath out of me.

Here’s how writing and editing short stories usually works for me:

Image by John Conde from Pixabay

1. Write story draft.

2. Review draft and add all the stuff left out of the first draft.

3. Let story sit a while in order to see it with fresh eyes.

4. Review the story and fix all the glaring errors and plot problems.

5. Review the story again, and again, and again, and again. Cut extraneous and wordy bits. Send the story to a beta reader or critique partner for comments.

6. Read the story aloud or have MS Word read it to me to catch errors and awkward wording.

7. Submit the story to markets.

8. Receive rejections while writing other stories. Submit the story over and over again until it’s accepted for publication somewhere.

9. Receive the edited version back from the editor and try not to be overwhelmed by all the stupid errors missed in the dozens of reviews completed before submitting the story. Hope the editor is wrong about some of the comments and redline markings. Carefully read the editor’s comments.

10. Acknowledge that the editor is right and fix the errors. Return the manuscript to the editor.

Image by Anne Karakash from Pixabay

I’ve worked with editors I’ve hired as well as editors from magazines and anthologies. With one exception, every professional editor with whom I’ve worked has improved my writing. I’m grateful to all of them, especially the one that said “your climax needs more conflict” and still accepted the story for publication.

Overdoing description is a fault of mine so each of the great editors recommended deleting wordy areas. Each made comments in the margins asking questions that I had to decide the best way to answer. They made suggestions on fixes, but left the rewriting to me.

The one bad editor I encountered was one I was considering hiring to help me edit a book. I sent that editor a sample chapter. When she returned it, every single line of the manuscript had been changed. I was stunned by the amount of red on the page. She had changed a character’s behavior and responses to another character, in effect rewriting the character. She changed the entire tone and voice of the story, making it her story instead of mine. Her version of editing stood out in stark contrast to the great editors that I had previously used. The bad editor didn’t make comments and leave the fixing to me. She came up with her own fixes and inserted them.

Consequently, that one editor taught me how to tell a good editor from a bad editor. Good editors tell writers what needs fixing and why. They may make suggestions on what might work to fix a problem, but they don’t do the rewriting themselves. Good editors leave the rewriting up to the writer. Great editors edit. They don’t rewrite.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

By K.P. Gresham

“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.”
― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors

Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.

A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.

Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.

Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you?  Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.

Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality.  For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.

Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!

Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover?  In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’s, All The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.

These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.

So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!

   K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Coming in 2021

Four Reasons to Die

THE PLOT THICKENS! Or, Your Suspicions May Be True

by Helen Currie Foster

Okay—Mom Genes is such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?

And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.

Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.

Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.

But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.

Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”

Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”

Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.

Fascinating research discusses how different bits of our genes “express” themselves, particularly in response to hormones. For instance, various sorts of stress can result in hormonal effects on gene expression: “Physiological changes that affect mRNA stability occur during development, nutritional stress, hypoxia, inflammation, cancer, and aging.”

The notion that our genes are static? Maybe not!

So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.

Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.

Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)

And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.

Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).

Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”

Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”

Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.

We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiences, by how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.

The Ones That Stick With You

by Helen Currie Foster

We read to learn, we read to be entertained.

We begged at age three, “Tell me a story.”

The stories began, “Once upon a time…”

And Hansel fooled the witch and escaped. Jack chopped down the beanstalk and escaped.

We mystery readers read a vast number of mystery novels. Fifty percent of adults say their favorite book genre is mystery/thriller. In 2020 mystery e-book sales appear to have increased by13% and thrillers by 15%.

We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.

Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?

If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”

Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim.  Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.

On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.

I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.

I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.

What about The Nine Tailors (1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.

Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.

I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped. Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.

I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.

I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.

 Ghost Dog.

But mercifully, they were already dead.

Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.