Book Clubs for Writers: A Doggone Good Time!

By K.P. Gresham

I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.

I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)

Until…

Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.

I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.

It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.

Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.

I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.

All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.

What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.

So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!

***

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Sharks: Who, Where, and How to Get Rid of Them

by Kathy Waller

This is a shark:

 

This shark does not live in the ocean. It lurks in bookstores, libraries, coffee shops:

Disguised as an aspiring writer, it invades critique groups and, fueled by ego, envy, jealousy, and just plain mean-spiritedness, can do untold harm.

Writer, instructor, and “genre-hopper” Maralys Wills describes its pernicious effect:

“Nothing will stifle creativity faster than the critiquer who’s ‘out to get’ other writers. Subtly, or not so subtly, a shark is so impossible to please that other authors become frustrated, then discouraged, and finally defeated.”

Wills speaks from experience. She was once in a critique group with a writer who wrote “golden prose” that Wills could only praise. But she was the only one who saw flawless writing.

“Sure enough, each week,  the others ripped and tore and nit-picked to death the work I found so perfect. . .  and all the time I was thinking, You guys must be desperate to flaunt your hatchets. None of you are as good as she is.”

Wills has a rule covering toxic critique groups: “Any group dominated by a shark should be disbanded. Preferably, you should kill the shark on your way out.”

In critique groups, intentions matter. Relationships matter.

In the most productive groups, members behave like professionals. They look for the positive and address the negative in language designed to help their colleagues improve. In the best groups, they behave like friends. Sometimes, members even morph from friends into buddies. And in a buddy-style relationship, anything can happen.

For example, in a chapter I submitted to a short-lived two-person group—we called ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Critique Group, for a reason I won’t go into here—a  contentious old lady says to another character, “And you and that Claudia person can just go right back where you came from.”

Gale, my partner, objected to the word person; she said the old woman knew Claudia and so would say, “You and Claudia can just go right back where you came from.” I didn’t argue (a rule: no arguing),  but I knew the character, and I could hear her say, “that Claudia person.” Because writers are free to reject advice if they wish, I left the word where it was.

Some time later, commenting on  a revision of that page, Gale again said I should remove person. But I still liked person—it was one of my darlings—so I quietly declined to do so.

By the third go-around, Gale had  had enough: “That Claudia person thing is driving me crazy.”

She wouldn’t have said that to just anyone. We’d worked together and learned to trust each other. We spoke the same language. We were buddies.

She knew I would laugh. I laughed. She laughed. I removed the offending person.

So here is my love song, not fancy or fine, but sincere, to the Austin Mystery Writers, the Just for the Hell of It Writers, and all those other groups that give aspiring writers the knowledge, support, and  courage to keep aspiring, to publication and beyond.

By the way, the toxic critique group Maralys Wills wrote about—she and the writer of “golden prose” left the group. I don’t know what happened to the sharks. Wills and the other writer might have killed them on the way out. Or they might still be out there, destroying other writers’ creativity.

Maralys Wills, however, became an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction.

And the writer of “golden prose” that the sharks trashed at every meeting? She became the author of the best-selling Inspector Lynley mysteries—Elizabeth George.

***

These are not sharks:

 

For your reading pleasure, I recommend Maralys Wills’ Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead: The Bumpy Road to Getting Published. 

***

 

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in the Austin Mystery Writers crime fiction anthologies, Murder on Wheels (Wildside, 2015) and Lone Star Lawless (Wildside, 2017), and at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly and has a novella coming out this fall.  She lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

 

 

 

 

VISITING THE AUSTIN DPS – AN EXERCISE IS PATIENCE AND ENDURANCE

by Francine Paino

A few weeks ago, I was forced to visit the Austin Department of Public Safety, where I spent four long, long hours. Let me be clear, however, I’m not slamming the Austin DPS. It’s a factor of population vs. the number of employees. In fact, I found the agents polite and friendly, as opposed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York (DMV) where friendly and courteous are not in their vocabulary. To be fair, (maybe) they too suffer from the imbalance balance of employees vs. the population.

Thank God, I don’t visit every DMV, DPS or departments throughout the country that issue, renew, replace and take care of every function concerning drivers licenses. I can only guess that it will almost always be the same. Population vs. the number of employees.

So, I arrived at the DPS with my 96-year-old mother, who had her wallet stolen. TWICE IN ONE WEEK! (Another story for another blog.)We arrived at 9:30 a.m. Can’t get this nonagenarian out of bed much earlier than 9. People lined up outside the door; a police deputy watched the exit then let us in, one-at-a-time. First stop, the information desk.

Ten ahead of us.

When it was our turn, I explained the reason for our visit: mother needed a new license.

Her only identification (remember her wallet had been stolen – TWICE) was her old, expired temporary license. The young woman nodded, put it in an envelope, made a few notes, handed us the envelope and another number, and told us to take a seat. 

In the waiting area, the seats were all filled. People were sitting on the floor. Mother cannot sit on the floor. She leaned on her cane and sighed. To our delight, a lovely lady, sitting in the front row, saw her number come up before it was called. She gave my mother her seat. Then a very nice gentleman insisted that I take his. (My age must be showing, too!?!) 

I looked at the board, and my heart sank. It was 9:50 a.m. The active letters were L, S, and N. Our number was S 3097. The highest S number on the board was 3009. I thought an “S” word. It was going to be a very, very long day.

So, trying not to lose my cool, I fidgeted in the hard plastic seat castigating myself for not bringing something to read. Instead, I decided to think about what could be accomplished while enduring a wait that could make an overly stressed person wig out.

Besides launching one into antiquity, if used effectively, the time spent at the DPS can be constructive.

One could improve one’s Spanish since all announcements, written notices and billboards are bilingual. If one sits there long enough, one becomes proficient in short phrases, such as: Now, the number being served is_____, A ora, serviendo numero____, at station _____. a la stacion ____Or, Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Los niños deben estar acompañados por un adulto en todo momento. 

A  few more hours and I might have achieved some decent conversational skills.

One could, of course, read a book for pleasure, but A-type personalities who feel they must accomplish something could make lists. Shopping lists, chores, e-mails to be sent, phone calls to be made, lists of things to do to make up for lost time when one finally leaves the DPS.

If one is really proactive, one could begin writing envelopes for Christmas cards, or draft the terms of a last will and testament, since the wait might thrust one to the brink of the next world.

So, how did I spend my time?

I drafted this blog, made a list of chores and tasks to be completed by the end of the day, and outlined two chapters for my next book. All of this, however, had to be written on a very little notepad because I didn’t have the foresight to bring along a decent size writing pad or my tablet – dumb!

I’m sure you’re wondering why, with at least 100 people ahead of us, we didn’t leave and come back. The first, most important reason was the uneven progress at the stations. It reminded me of what it was like learning to drive a stick-shift car. Stop, start, and jerk the vehicle. The digital board stopped, started, crawled then hit overdrive, posting numbers in rapid succession. Thus, the risk of missing our number and starting over was unthinkable!

The second reason to stay put and allow one’s butt to fuse into the comfortless chair is, as soon as you get out of it, someone else takes it—and rightfully. 

So, I sat there muttering curses and scribbling cramped little notes in my cramped little notebook. Finally, four hours later, number S 3,097 was flashed on the board, followed by the announcement in English and Spanish.

At last! Come, mother,” I said and literally had to pull her out of the chair. I think her butt had melded to the plastic.

We proceeded to the assigned station. Then disaster!

Where is your application?” asked the agent.

Application!? What application?” My voice was on the edge of hysteria. I broke out in a sweat. “I wasn’t told to fill out an application.”

Mother stood there in her best fragile little-old-lady posture, which she is not, and thankfully kept quiet.

Please,” I begged. “We’ve been here for four hours. I wasn’t told to fill anything out.”

This kind agent smiled, handed me the application, told us to step aside, and fill it out while she serviced the next person on the line. For this, I believe she’ll have a place in heaven—or perhaps she was afraid I’d go postal.  

I filled it out as fast as I could, controlling my serial killer handwriting so that it would be legible. The kind agent waved us back to her station, and fifteen minutes later, mother had a new temporary license.

So, what have I learned? The next time I must visit the DPS, I’ll have a supply of pencils, a legal pad, and a book. Perhaps a pillow too.

No matter how you look at it, spending four hours in a bad chair, waiting to be called for a process that takes only minutes is an exercise in patience, endurance, determination, and a sense of humor – which I did not have.

***

A native New Yorker and a Texas transplant, Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

Appropriately, the Live Music Capitol of the World is where she and her husband now live, under the watchful and loving direction of their cat, Miss Millie.

Ms. Paino has had a varied career in the business end of dance. She has worked for several dance notables, including Ali Pourfarrokh, and the late Kaleria Fedicheva. Her passion for ballet, opera, and history fuel much of her writing.

Her first book, a Young Adult, Paranormal murder mystery, TO LIVE AND DIE FOR DANCE, received recognition from Purple Dragonfly and The Hollywood Book Festival, and her children’s book, MAMA’S LITTLE LADY: A SPECIAL PONY, also won an award from the Purple Dragonfly Book Contest.

Her short stories, “An Unwelcome Image,” a psychological thriller was published in Over My Dead Body, an online mystery magazine, and one of her humorous tales, “A Supermarket Nightmare,” was carried in Funny Times Magazine.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Contact: franpaino@gmail.com OR fdellanotte72@gmail.com

WEBSITES: www.francinepaino.com/ and fdellanotte.com/

Recommended Reading: Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others

 

by Renee Kimball

Pat Schneider is a poet-healer, a guide and shaman who believes writing is the means to self-healing. Writing Alone and with others is a writer’s guide to forgiving and giving yourself permission to write your story that opens a way to finding the better you.

There are gems of wisdom in Schneider’s book for writers and would-be-writers. Each page speaks in a kind of firm best-friend voice. It is directed to anyone and everyone. Quoting Will Stafford, Schneider affirms: “A writer is someone who writes”—stating whether writing a letter, email, or merely a report, we all write. If writing calls to you, you must answer the call, if you do not, you damage yourself—whatever your write, it is your art—your story—and your right to write.

When we neglect the artist in ourselves, there is a kind of mourning that goes on under the surface of our busy lives.

If you are troubled and wish to heal, then the act of writing will heal you. Your story does not have to be shared in order for you to be whole. Of course, there are those who want to share, and that is a good thing. But whatever path is chosen, the medicine—writing—will heal you.

The very act of writing takes courage, it is an act exposing your most vulnerable self. You know which writers’ stories relate to you. If you share, it may be the story that irrevocably changes not only your path, but another’s path, you never know—it is a risk. Take the risk to write, whether you share or not, and you will heal.

Writing is a scary thing to do and the bad news is, it never stops being scary. Once I was at a luncheon with several writers and one of them had won the Pulitzer Prize. And he said: “What in God’s name do you write after you’ve won the Pulitzer?” And he was terrified. And I know someone else who has written book after book . . . and he’s miserable when he’s writing his next book, because he says, “I’ll never finish, I can’t do this. How did I get myself into this?” ~ Interview

Pat Schneider by Deekatherine [CC BY-SA 4.0]. via Wikimedia Commons

Schneider’s book is a firm but loving GET TO IT message, a message to GET ON WITH YOUR WRITING AND HEAL YOURSELF – Look into the dark corners of yourself, write them down, clear them out, banish them, shed them, become whole.

Schneider encourages everyone to “Write something that feels too huge, or too dangerous, to tell. Courage is not the special prerogative of those who have experienced some dramatic suffering.”

This is a hefty book, a thoughtful book, and whether you are an old-hand at writing, a beginner, or simply seeking personal solace through writing, Schneider’s book will fill you up and just may be the start towards a new beginning.

*

To grow in craft is to increase the breadth of what I can do, but art is the depth, the passion the desire, the courage to be myself and myself alone.

GOING HOME THE LONGEST WAY AROUND

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
we make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.
Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.
And they were silent, the children,
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.
It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

~ Pat Schneider

For more of Pat Schneider’s poems visit her blog.  

References

Pat Schneider.Writing alone and with others. The guide that will beat the block, banish fear, and help create lasting work.

Pat Schneider – Online Interview – On Writing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ1ukC0KWZI Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press) Published on Apr 24, 2013

 

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

THE SCENT OF A WOMAN…THEATER…SEA

by Helen Currie Foster

Even just thinking of certain smells can yank me straight back to childhood. Oil paint­­s? Mama working on her first portrait. Jello chocolate pudding mix? My sister standing on a chair, eyebrows level with the gas flame, stirring a saucepanful for us to share. A little chlorine? Joyous summer afternoon at Northwest Park pool.

Mindful that writers use sensory images to make a page come alive, I had a mission––locate smells. I pulled books off the shelf.

Of course I went first to my personal favorite, To the Lighthouse (1927), sure that the brilliant descriptions of the island, of time passing, would include smell. I found nothing until page 19 (the wind “drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds…”). Finally, on page 33, Lily Briscoe describes William Bankes (“a widower, smelling of soap, very scrupulous and clean”). We know just from the soap that nothing will come of this relationship.

Lonesome Dove. Chapters One-Two: vivid visual images, great dialogue, descriptions of food (beans)––but no smell until Chapter Three when Lorena observes, looking across the river at Mexico, “…it didn’t look any more interesting than Texas, and the men stunk just as bad as Texans, if not worse.” “Stunk.” Not much, but it gets the point across.

Treasure Island (1882). Chapters One-Two: scary characters, scars, blood, cutlasses and rum––but no smell until Chapter Three when the captain “put his nose out of doors to smell the sea….”

Maybe Victorian/post-Victorian writers were loath to mention bodily smells. However, the smell of the sea seems to be all right. Considering how repugnant Virginia Woolf (at least initially) found Ulysses (1914) when it first appeared, I checked Chapter One and found Stephen Dedalus’s famous dream of his dead mother, who begged him to kneel and pray at her deathbed, but he refused:

Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Well. That’s strong.

Kim (1901): thankfully, in Kipling’s colorful description of Delhi during the Raj, Kim meets the lama from the far-off Himalayas:

He was old, and his woollen gaberdine still reeked of the stinking artemisia of the mountain passes.

Now we see the lama, high above the plains, striding through the mountains. And we smell that artemisia.

The Sound and the Fury (1929). Faulkner gives us Benjy, waiting with his caretaker Versh for his big sister Caddy:

I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold.

“You better put them hands back in your pockets.”

Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said.

She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves.

Later Benjy adds “Caddy smelled like trees.” With all we later hear of Caddy, we won’t forget that she smelled like leaves, like trees.

At this point I’d concluded that despite all the big talk about writers appealing to our senses, smells are sparsely put about. Visual imagery: everywhere. Sure, Proust included taste, dipping his famous madeleine into tea. But smell? Well, it’s powerful when used…which seems sparing.

Except in some mysteries. Not every mystery. Take Dorothy Sayers. Her Gaudy Night begins with protagonist Harriet Vane, recently exonerated of murder charges in Strong Poison, setting out for an Oxford class reunion, and searching for her academic robe:

She dragged out an ancient trunk, unlocked it and flung back the lid. A close, cold odor.

I found little more, but that one phrase suggested Vane’s bitter history and, in a way, her take on the plot to come.

For more extensive use, consider Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), where the theatre and some characters are rich with odor. Nineteen-year-old Martyn Tarne arrives by ship from New Zealand, hoping to act in London, but loses her travelers cheques. On a rainy evening, exhausted and hungry, she accidentally lands a job as dresser to Helena Hamilton, lead actress at the Vulcan, where Martyn’s permitted to spend the night:

She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp and facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.

She meets Helena Hamilton, her employer:

she was only vaguely aware of a fragrance in the air and a new voice in the passage. The next moment her employer came into the dressing room.

It took Martyn a moment or two to realize that this was her cue to remove Miss Hamilton’s coat. She lifted it from her shoulders––­­it was made of Persian lamb and smelt delicious­­––and hung it up.

Then she meets Hamilton’s actor husband, a middle-aged, handsome man with a raffish face. “He went out, leaving a faint rumour of alcohol behind him.”

As to the theater dogsbody, Jacko, to Martyn “he smelt of toothpaste and nicotine.”

Only a few of Marsh’s characters identify themselves to Martyn as distinctive fragrances. For instance, Helena Hamilton’s unique, expensive and “delicious” fragrance matches her talent. But scent is key to Marsh’s setting. Martyn’s encounters with the smells of the Vulcan––naphthalene and plush, dressing rooms with their banks of flowers, greasepaint and cosmetics­––make the entire building come alive for us.

Smells. They’re stored in our individual attics as powerful yet faint and fleeting memories of a specific moment, a specific place. Maybe smells are, and should be, used sparingly because of their immediacy. Marsh is stingy: Helena isn’t “tagged” with fragrance; it doesn’t appear and reappear, page after page. It’s shared with us as part of Martyn’s first impression of the character.

Writers repeat for characters their visual tags (the hat, the eyebrows, the frown) and their dialogue and voice tags (“Whatever you say, dear”). In contrast, in creating character and scene, perhaps smells call for restraint or subtlety. “Caddy smelled like leaves.” We know what that means, though we don’t know exactly what it smells like. We can supply our own memory there, our own leaves, and the sense of the smell belongs to us immediately.

Have you ever opened a box, a closet, containing the stored possessions of someone you love, and found that the first whiff reminds you…and then disappears? We can’t on demand repeat the impact of the stored memory of smell. Like a first impression, smells are permanently stored in the memory attic, but not reliably accessible. In fact, words can’t readily capture certain smells. I’ve tried and failed to put into words the tender memory of the smell of my mother’s house. Words haven’t yet captured it. Was it compounded of specific elements, like floor wax, bath powder, books, cooking? Naah. That doesn’t work.

Talking about this with my brother, he agreed that actual smells can be “keys straight into the lock of memory but are very difficult to describe unless they’re well known and simply identified: lavender, diesel exhaust, bacon.” He said, “I do like it when the writer tries, though!”

He added that one of his favorite smells is the smell of a child running in from play outside in the cool evening. Well, I can’t think of words to describe exactly what that child smells like, but the description––the child running in from play outside in the cool evening––opened a key in my own memory cabinet. I knew that smell when he described it.

Maybe writers are sparing with this, our most primitive and sensitive sense, because it’s hard to find the exact description for certain smells in, say, the writer’s memory cabinet. Yet it’s possible to convey the sense of that smell to a reader. And we do “like it when the writer tries”!

*

helen-currie-foster-hotxsincHelen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

Writing an Academic Mystery

 

SayersbksA
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.

2017-TheWallsCanTalk-eBook-2250X1500-c
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.

question-622164_640
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.

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)
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

An Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of BLUE LAKE

by M.K. Waller

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When I began Elizabeth Buhmann’s BLUE LAKE, I was–I’m ashamed to say–afraid I would be disappointed. Her first novel, LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR, was so well constructed, clues so obviously placed, that I should have been able to predict the ending—but so deftly woven into the plot that the last chapter was a complete surprise. More than a surprise—a shock. That novel was so good, I knew BLUE LAKE couldn’t match it.

I was wrong. BLUE LAKE is different from its predecessor, of course, but just as well written and just as suspenseful.  And when I reached the end, I said, “I should have known.”

BLUE LAKE does not disappoint.

Buhmann hides things in plain sight—the mark of a good mystery writer, and the delight of every mystery reader.

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“Rural Virginia, 1945. The Second World War had just ended when Alice Hannon found the lifeless body of her five-year-old daughter, Eugenie, floating in Blue Lake. The tragedy of the little girl’s death destroyed the Hannon family.

“More than twenty years later, Alice’s youngest daughter, Regina, returns home after a long estrangement because her father is dying. She is shocked to discover, quite by accident, that her sister’s drowning was briefly investigated as a murder at the time.

“For as long as she can remember, Regina has lived in the shadow of her family’s grief. She becomes convinced that if she can discover the truth about Eugenie’s death, she can mend the central rift in her life. With little to go on but old newspapers and letters, the dead girl’s hairpin, and her own earliest memories, Regina teases out a family history of cascading tragedy that turns her world upside down.” 

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Where did you get the idea for Blue Lake?

A friend told me something about her family history. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had 12 children. By the time the last child came along, her oldest daughter was in her twenties, childless, and wishing she could have a baby. So that youngest child was given to her sister and grew up believing that her sister was her mother and her mother was her grandmother.

The way my friend told it, the situation played out without great trauma—the little girl learned that she was adopted in the usual sort of way. But to me, the possibilities for very deep emotional upheaval were striking, just depending on the circumstances. For my main character, Regina, being given to her sister was a disaster, and the feelings of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment are intense.

Why the mid-century setting?

Another friend, who read a very early draft of this story, said, “It’s great but the setting in time falls between contemporary and historical. Can’t you tell the same story set in present day?”

The answer is no. For two reasons. One: too many things that happen in the story could not happen now. Advances in forensic science, victim services, and child protection would be expected to change the outcome at nearly every stage. And yet I think that many of the old attitudes and assumptions—especially about female victims, racial prejudice, and the sovereignty of the family—are stubbornly alive today.

Two: There is a shape to that era—the twenties, the Crash, the Depression, World War II, emerging modernism—that is unique and still shapes our world experience. And I don’t think anyone disputes that the Old South continues to haunt us.

This book is very different from your first!

It is! LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR was a much riskier project, having a protagonist who was in so many ways also an antagonist. And it was contemporary. And although the crimes reached back decades, the truth about them was entirely accessible in the end.

In Blue Lake, the violence reaches back so far in the past, and in a time when the truth about an isolated incident could so much more easily slip out of reach forever, that it felt to me as though Regina would never be able penetrate the mystery. It was a challenge to lead her to the answers she so desperately needed.

Always murder! Why do you write about murder?

To me it is the ultimate drama, when human emotions result in one person killing another. I try to treat murder with respect, for the extreme and shocking act that it is for real. I love a good cozy mystery as much as the next person, but I cannot write one. Murder is a deadly serious topic—could not be more so.

I also read mysteries and thrillers that feature serial killers, though these are not my favorites at all. These murders are committed by people who fall well outside the realm of normal human emotional response. I am more interested in a murder that is understandable, so to speak.

I would not go so far as to say that we are all capable of killing another human being. I have no idea whether that is true—probably not? But I think we all recognize and experience emotions which, if we were tested to a limit and beyond, could make us really want to kill another person.

Laws are quite clear about issues such as self-defense and justifiable homicide, but our individual perceptions of these concepts, in extreme and highly emotional circumstances, can be quite elastic. And it may well be that anyone who murders has a deeply flawed character. But character flaws are universally human, too.

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Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where both of her novels are set. Growing up as the daughter of an Army officer, she lived in France, Germany, New York, Japan, and Saint Louis. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Her first murder mystery, Lay Death at Her Door, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and twice reached the Amazon Top 100 (paid Kindle). Elizabeth lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and is a long-time student of Tai Chi.

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BLUE LAKE: A Mystery is available at https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Lake-Mystery-Elizabeth-Buhmann-ebook/dp/B07SKJ1CF4/

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FTC Disclaimer: Elizabeth Buhmann is a friend and fellow writer. When we were both members of Austin Mystery Writers, I read the first chapters of BLUE LAKE in draft form and then waited impatiently for it to reach publication. The synopsis above is quoted from Amazon. I wrote the review. Nobody told me what to think or to say, and I posted it because I wanted to tell other readers of mystery and suspense about a book worthy of their To Be Read lists.

No reviewers were bribed, coddled, or coerced in the writing of this review.

~ M.K. Waller

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M.K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.