Do You Enjoy Speculative Fiction?

By N.M. Cedeño

Do you enjoy speculative fiction? Do you know what speculative fiction is?

The dictionary defines speculative fiction as “a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.” The genre is an umbrella under which lies science fiction, fantasy, and even some kinds of horror. From fairy tales to space operas, from paranormal stories to alternative histories, any kind of fiction containing imagined elements that exist outside of known reality can be classified as speculative fiction. Many well-known books and series fall into this category.

Works of dystopian fiction like Brave New World by Huxley, 1984 by Orwell, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are speculative fiction. The Hunger Games dystopian series is speculative fiction.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is speculative fiction.

Stephen King’s horror novel It and his time travel novel 11/22/63 are speculative fiction.

Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and other space operas are speculative fiction.

The Twilight romance series featuring werewolves and vampires is speculative fiction.

The Harry Potter fantasy series is speculative fiction.

The Martian, a work of hard science fiction by Andy Weir, is speculative fiction.

Janet Evanovich’s Lizzy and Diesel urban fantasy series is speculative fiction.

Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas paranormal thriller series is speculative fiction.

Wonder Woman and other superhero stories are speculative fiction.

Irish folk tales about leprechauns or banshees are speculative fiction.

Given all the stories and genres that can be classified as speculative fiction, it might be easier to ask what isn’t speculative fiction than to go through all the examples of what it is. If a work of fiction is entirely realistic in its setting and involves no magical, supernatural, futuristic, or other elements that don’t yet or might never exist, then it isn’t speculative fiction. A mystery, police drama, or romance set in the present day with no imaginary elements added would be categorized as realistic fiction. Horror, thriller, and suspense novels that feature only human evil or terrors that are based in the real world are realistic fiction. A historical drama that accurately reflects life in a given time period would also be realistic fiction.

Speculative fiction allows for flights of imagination, presenting other worlds, dream worlds, and future worlds rather than depicting the world how it is or was. Realistic fiction stays within the bounds of known reality.

As an author, some of my writing falls under the mantle of speculative fiction. My Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries featuring Lea, a woman who can see and talk to ghosts, definitely fits into the category. My romantic suspense / mystery novel All in Her Head also features paranormal elements.

My novel For the Children’s Sake is a murder mystery featuring an imaginary medical condition where some people’s skin oils cause other people to go into anaphylactic shock and die. That imaginary condition makes the book speculative fiction, even though the rest of the book is based in reality.

October 2021 issue

Several of my short stories are classified as social science fiction, set in possible future worlds. For example, my short story entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy is a private detective story set in a world with no privacy rights.

My latest release is also a work of science fiction. The Wrong Side of History is currently available in the October 2021 issue of After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy and Ethics Short Story Magazine. The Wrong Side of History is a tale of blackmail set in a world recovering from a near-extinction event and featuring a 130-year-old politician trying to keep his legacy intact in a world with values that differ widely from those considered acceptable in his youth.

So back to the original question. Do you enjoy speculative fiction?

*****

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.

Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction – Book Review

By Renee Kimball

Biblioholism *. . .book, of books; the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire, and consume books in excess.  Tom Raabe

In Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction, author Tom Raabe hilariously details what happens to those who are unable to contain their compulsion to purchase, collect . . .well, HOARD books.  And if you wonder if there are still certain people who do this in the age of Ebooks- – – then YES is the answer.  Biblioholics still exist, while collecting books in all its myriad forms available today.

Raabe wrote the first edition of Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction in 1991, it was revised and re-published in 2001.  Raabe’s insights are entertaining, that is, unless you are a BOOK HOARDER – and, well, then reading about it can be uncomfortable, even painful. 

So, for the record, I am biased, I am not impartial, I am a Book Hoarder.

Today’s book world is much, much different than that of Raabe’s.  Book stores, places of wonder, have greatly diminished, other online sellers have cornered the book-buying-market.  Technology has transmogrified lengthy volumes into tiny bits and bytes.  Centuries of the written word are now carried along with phones, tucked into portable cases or satchels, purses, and even pockets, read whenever the owner chooses, wherever the owner can get a satellite signal.

But still, Biblioholics that remain continue to treasure the heft of the physical book.  They are behind the scenes, ferreting out those remaining bookstores, garage sales, thrift stores, Thriftbooks, Ebay and Etsy, and public library sales for the real thing…that tome of paper–the physical book.  Dusty, dirty, old, frayed, new, crisp, silly, serious we keep looking and bringing home BOOKS

Raabe asks: Do you suffer from Biblioholism

“What another addiction? . . . Don’t we have enough addictions to worry about —drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, gambling eating, not eating, shopping shoplifting, sex, chocolate, work, television watching, fitness, religion, and who know that else—without having to worry about books too?” Raabe (p. 12-13).

What are the effects of Biblioholism?  Raabe enlightens us (the following is paraphrased, for a full accounting, please obtain the book) . . .

  1.  The first thing to go is your eyesight.  “This is because biblioholics, by definition, read everywhere…We must read and considerations, like proper lighting are not sufficient to sway us from our passion. . .” (p. 14).
  2. Losing your ability to see, is second to the change in our body (neck, arms, chest, fanny, bum, backside). Nothing worse than the effect of a tilting head and neck after years of reading in bed. “Browser’s neck” appears but that is small compared to the “every spreading” dynasty of flesh which becomes the derriere you never wanted and has “spread to the size of the Mississippi Delta.” (p. 14).
  3. “Proper hygiene,” and “time,” come last to finishing that last chapter.  If you can push yourself to read a few more sentences, then taking a spit-bath is far more attractive than a full shower or arriving to work with pressed clothes and sparking teeth.  The financial result (both in pay) and ability to buy more books, suffers.
  4. As the Biblioholic’s living space becomes constricted with books (stacked everywhere and on everything), their social world contracts as well –soon, encased by books, a recluse is born.  You can’t invite anyone in, you can’t safely open the door.”

When the Biblioholic finally realizes they need “help,” it may be too late. . . Books have taken over his/her life. 

At this stage, there is little or no money (it has all been spent on books), and because books have taken the place of human company, there are few friends to call on for assistance.  Only after the Biblioholic comes to his senses, can he finally confront his book-addiction and turn his life around.

If you believe you may be a Biblioholic and need a guide to determine if you are a true “book addict,” then review Raabe’s “checklist,’ for a more targeted approach.  Following a sample of Raabe’s questions found in: “Taking the Test: Are you a Biblioholic?” (pg. 25-30) . . .

“Have you ever bought the same book twice without knowing it?

At Christmastime, do you buy your loved ones books that you want to read?

Do you have a personal library on an entire subject, note of which you have read?

When at a garage sale, is the first thing you look at the books?

Have you ever become suddenly deeply interested in an obscure topic and immediately bought six or more books on that topic?”. . .

I must answer “Yes” to all of the above, I even have more than two copies of the same book (even three).  While there is much more to Raabe’s lighthearted but serious book, he closes with a chapter detailing a suggestion for a cure:

“. . . and now you’re probably ready to bask in the good news of a cure and get on with life, right?  Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but wrong. Because the operative rule for this disease is: Biblioholic, heal thyself.” (p. 156).

Wait! After all this about the disease, how do I cure myself, you ask?  Raabe glibly offers the following: “Total Abstinence,” “Find Something Else to Love,” (as in marriage, or supplant with another addiction: “shopping, religion, fitness, rage, chocolate, sex, work, pizza…who knows what else.” (p. 159).  And lastly, much like aversion therapy, Raabe finally suggests: “Buy Till It Hurts.” (p. 163). 

“. . .nothing works unless we want to be cured. . .And in order to hit that bottom we have to buy until it hurts, until every dollar forked over for a book brings with it concomitant pain and guilt.

          We can’t be cured until we want help; we can’t want help until we hit bottom; and we can’t hit bottom until we become absolute book fools and buy until it causes us so much pain we will want help. . .

          How else can we be healed?  The disease must run its course. . .Only in total defeat is there victory. Only from the bottom can we see the top. Once we get there, we can turn it around.  But as they say, getting there is half the fun.”. . . (Raabe 163).

What will you try?  I think I will continue to implement Raabe’s last suggestion – I will keep buying till it hurts. 

After all, when has “Total Abstinence” ever worked for any addiction?

References:

Raabe, Tom. Biblioholism: the Literary Addiction. Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.  Photo courtesy of Amazon.

The Biblioholic. Biblioholism: n. [BIBLIO + HOLISM] book, of books: the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess. Columbia Edu – OnLine http://www.columbia.edu/~fuat/biblioholic.com/

Photos courtesy of Pixabay. 

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

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.

*****

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.

Dreaming in Santa Fe

by Helen Currie Foster

Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window—I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.

 

Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.

My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches—acequias—feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.

We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.

To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.

Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history—Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).

Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0

In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.

After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.

Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.

But  in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.

Thanks, Santa Fe! Like so many…I’ll be back.

***

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series and is active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter. Follow her at www.helencurriefoster.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/, and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=helen+currie+foster

The Nightingale—A Novel by Kristin Hannah—And . . . Admitting When You Are Wrong

The NightingaleA Novel by Kristin Hannah is a weighty 564 pages.  The cover has shades of blue and grey with the embossed golden image of a bird in a tree- delicate, feminine, appealing.  The story is not delicate; however, it is a dark surprise, and one worth reading, even re-reading.

A bit of personal honesty is in ordergoing in, I was prepared to dislike this book.  I do not read romantic based historical fiction. I told myself that Hannah was a romantic author, very popular, but still, romance. NOPE, nope, not for me.  Not my cup of tea.

Fate intervened.  My on-line book club chose Hannah for the Author of the Month selection.  Despite moaning and muttering, I bought the book, read the book, and here we are.

Let me get it out now, I was wrong about Hannah and wrong about The Nightingale.  This novel is much more than a delicate cover. 

The novel is set during the WWII Nazi occupation of France.  Hannah weaves her story while detailing the brutal German oppression and murder of the French people, the cruel dislocation of French Jews and other targeted groups, and the incredible bravery of the members of the French Resistance.

The writing is sparse; there are no literary flourishes — it fits the story.  The novel evolves around the lives of two sistersVianne (Rossignol) Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, at odds with one another since early childhood.  Interweaving the present with the past, and the past into the present, the sisters’ experiences become a single thread of unmet expectations and misunderstandings, that in the end, show an unrelenting depth of love and respect between them.

The reader learns that, when they were very young, their mother suddenly died.  Ignored by their grieving father, the girls raised themselves.  Years of parental indifference caused the girls to become emotionally distanced, then resentful towards each other.  The older sister, Vianne Rossignol (Mauriac), becomes pregnant, escaping Paris through marriage and moving to the French countryside and far away from her sister.

The younger daughter, Isabelle Rossignol, an unabashed rebel, continues acting out, and as she is dismissed from one convent school to the next, the sisters become even further estranged.  Vianne settles into motherhood and country life, while Isabelle continues her ever increasing wild behavior in Paris.

Hannah forces the reader to watch as the Nazis enter Paris and expel French Jews from their homes and herd them into railway boxcars.  The reader walks the French countryside alongside hundreds of French citizens while above, German pilots indiscriminately release bombs on the crowds below.  Just as suddenly, the reader stands by as messages are secreted to members of the French Resistance.  The reader watches as downed American and British pilots are guided in the freezing cold while attempting to avoid roving German patrols, through the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.   

As the novel progresses, each sister, unknown to the other in their own way, secretly fights the Nazi occupation.  One sister becomes an undercover member of the French Resistance and the guide known as The Nightingale.  The Nightingale is the one who leads downed American and British pilots over the Pyrenees mountains to safety.  The sisters’ father makes a fateful and touching reappearance and with a surprising twist (no spoilers here).

Hannah’s research is faultless.  The Nightingale successfully mirrors the turbulence of war through the lens of a French family who deeply love France and one another.  The deprivations, hunger, fear, and reactions are visceral.  Hannah forces the reader to remember the atrocities of WWII, and cautions us to never forget this part of our history—we must all ensure that it can never happen again.  We cannot become complacent; we cannot take our freedoms for granted.

My mother once told me that a sign of maturity is admitting when you are wrong, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this book.  Find a copy of The Nightingale, read it, and share it with other like-minded reading friends, and spread the message: we must never forget.

***

References

Hannah, Kristin. The Nightingale: A Novel. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Photo of Novel courtesy of Amazon. Com

Photo of Eiffel Tower by Free Photos

Photo of Nazi in Paris. Wikimedia Commons : -(Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png  German Nazi officers parading in the deserted Foch avenue, Paris, France (1940). Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.)  (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png)

***

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

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.

****

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

And Over. And Over. And . . .

by Kathy Waller

I’m thinking it over.

Jack Benny

A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.

*

In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.

Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off:  “Good night, and good news.”

Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.

Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .

Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.

That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.

I’m Mary.

That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.

But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.

I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.

When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?

Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.

Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.

I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.

I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.

But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.

Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.

Well, I do. Professor Ken Macrorie said English majors think they’ll be paid to read books.

It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”

Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.

Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.

When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.

Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.

And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.

I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.

Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.

But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.

I have lightened up.

*

“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)

*

Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.

*

Kathy Waller has published stories in anthologies Murder on Wheels: 11 Tales of Crime on the Move; Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime; and Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse; and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

She is still amazed at how long it takes to write a blog post, even when she isn’t thinking.

Weaving Complexity into Story

by Renee Kimball

It has been a year of extremes—Covid, freezing weather, and higher than average temperatures forecast for the summer ahead. 

During Covid quarantine, I read many, many books of all kinds.  I forgot some of those within an hour of finishing, but others, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.  

The stories that remained with me included specific historical, geographical, even philosophical backstories, that despite of a kind of literary density, held my attention.  Each author had conducted meticulous research, and their obvious investment of time, effort, along with many complex details, was an achievement.  Each story was the kind the reader falls into and stays to the end.

Similarities between them were clear; all were written by female authors; all contained resourceful, intelligent female protagonists; and each flawlessly merged a complex backstory within the main theme.  What could have been unintelligible and unenjoyable was successful, even riveting.  These stories were not mired in dry, mind-numbing facts, and the characters were believable, even likeable; what more could a reader ask?

In the first novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, we meet the protagonist, Alma Whittaker.  Whittaker’s character is loosely based on the historical women explorers of the Victorian age.  Alma’s story is engaging, and she not only became an explorer, but a respected scientist through her groundbreaking global research in Bryology, the study of mosses, a branch of Botany.

Alma, an unattractive baby, then a precocious child, develops into a brilliant multi-talented adult.  Alma’s insatiable need to know everything, to her credit, gives her an unstoppable confidence that keeps her strong and saves her in the later decades of life.  Her greatest disappointment is her failed marriage, the husband unable or unwilling to give Alma the love that she desperately wants, eventually leaving her unhappy and alone. 

Gilbert’s rigorous research details the severity of the life of a Victorian woman.  Blocked from entering or studying within male dominated scientific fields, any findings women might make were dismissed or stolen by men who took credit for the original work, or disregarded completely.  In spite of this overall disregard, many women persevered, becoming explorers or scholars in their own right, and laid the groundwork of the first inklings of female equality.

The second novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, introduces a dual timeline and two female protagonists: the present-day London historian, Helen Watt, who discovers an ancient cache of valuable correspondence, and Ester Velasquez, a Jewish female scribe, who was the actual author of the historical letters.  Two stories run side by side, back and forth, jumping from present day London to the Jewish community of 1660s plague-ridden London. 

Intrigue and tension rise as a present-day scholarly battle throws university professors and researchers in a race to establish control over the translation of the letters, while, in tandem, Ester’s life-story is picked apart as the letters are slowly translated, revealing her character and brilliant inquisitive intellect.

Ester, an orphaned Jewish adolescent, is sent to London along with her brother, from Amsterdam, when their family home burns, killing both parents.  The children become wards of the venerated but blind Rabbi Moseh Ha Coen Mendes.  Ester’s brother, slated to become a scribe for the Rabbi, refuses, runs away, and dies shortly after. 

Hiding behind a fictious “male” persona, Ester becomes the Rabbi’s scribe.  A scribe was traditionally a male only position, but the Rabbi silently allows Ester to hide behind a false identity and to transcribe his weighty correspondence.  It does not take long for Ester’s razor-sharp intellect to rise to the surface when unbeknownst to the Rabbi, Ester modifies the Rabbi’s responses with her own commentary and questions.  This correspondence is composed in reply to some of the greatest thinkers of the day, a list that includes the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, among others.

Kadish presents an intellectually strong and resourceful woman trapped by gender, religion, tradition, and social constraints in the frantic environment of plague-ridden London.  Ester’s character refuses to be cowed and questions centuries of Rabbinical teaching and beliefs, even questioning Spinoza’s philosophies. 

Kadish’s language flows, integrating the complex philosophical theories of Judaism and those of Spinoza through Ester, and again through Helen Watt, a specialist in Judaic history who demands Ester’s letters be given the prominence and respect they deserve.  With Kadish, the reader becomes nothing less than a captive to the story—Kadish has created an historical page-turner.

The The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1 by N.K. Jemisin, unlike the first two novels, is pure science fiction in imaginary time.  The novel takes place on an Earth-like planet of broken islands, what Jemisin’s calls the “Stillness.” The ever-changing geological landscape breaks, fuses, rises and sinks, entire enclaves disappear, only to rise again elsewhere.  Time runs in Seasons that begin and end with land-mass upheaval while creating a daily apocalypse for its inhabitants.  

Essun, the protagonist, a middle-aged woman-healer, lives in the ever-changing Stillness, confronting numerous small enclaves of hostile caste-ridden survivors with bizarre magical abilities.

When her own toddler son displays telekinesis, he is murdered by her husband.  Essun had hidden the child’s gift from her husband to protect the child, and although Essun has these same gifts she keeps them hidden because she too would be killed.  After murdering the son, the husband takes their remaining daughter and flees.  The novel is based on Essun’s search for her husband and daughter within the ever-shifting geological nightmare landscape.

All three novels are a testament to the authors’ exacting research and story-telling abilities.  

Gilbert became an expert in Victorian mores, women explorers, and scientific standards of Botany and Bryology during the 1800s. 

Kadish grounded her story in Judaism, Spinoza’s complex philosophies, the history of Amsterdam and the London plague.  She successfully tackled the difficult job of two protagonists with parallel timelines, one present day, one historical, with finesse and without alienating the reader or breaking the thread of the story.  

Although science fiction, Jemisin incorporated ever-changing geological manifestations—shifting tectonic plates, volcanic fissures, and violent changes resulting from those stresses.  Notably, Jemisin’s characters are believable despite the imaginary violent landscape of the Stillness.  Jemisin’s story is a woman’s fight for survival.

Countless other authors have successfully incorporated complex concepts into successful fiction novels. For me, Gilbert, Kadish, and Jemisin, prove that although the backstory may be scientifically and philosophically dense, it is possible to create stories both engaging and understandable to the reader  

Their skill to weave complexity into writing is something to be admired, even envied.

***

References

Image Extreme Weather courtesy of Pixabay

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon

Heller, Jason. ‘Fifth Season’ Embraces The Scale And Complexity Of Fantasy. August 4, 201510:03 AM ET

Jason Heller. https://www.npr.org/2015/08/04/427825372/fifth-season-embraces-the-scale-and-complexity-of-fantasy

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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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

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.