Across the books and in person.

Welcome! Since I write two English mystery series, I thought it would be fun to chat about that. And about England. Specifically, Derbyshire, since that is the county I know the best. If you have questions about my books, about mysteries or your own writing, or want to know something about England -- perhaps you're planning a visit -- I'd love to talk with you. Let's start chatting, shall we?

Derbyshire VIllage

Derbyshire VIllage

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If at first you don't succeed...

I hope you're seated when you read this: I finished plotting the third McLaren book.  Doesn't sound so knee weakening or earth shaking?  It is when you consider that my brain's been wrapped around a crime different from the one that ended up in the plot.  All because I'm not at arsonist, I guess.  Even with researching things I could not come up with something.  Neither could David or his mates.  I guess none of them ever handled an arson case that resulted in a murder.  Which is good...but that's what I needed for my novel plot.

But at least I have a story and I hope to start writing after this coming weekend.  I've got the characters et al and am rarin' to start on this, but I've got seven talks/book signings from Friday morning to Monday night.  And even if I could wrangle some time between all this, my author friend Esther will be staying with me.  So I can't leave her sitting on the couch and write.  Don't worry...I'll get to it.  It'll give my brain a while to absorb the characters and storyline.

Still have yet to hear from anyone at the two English great homes.  I find this amazing, as people have been so helpful in the past.  Maybe I just need to talk to someone in person -- I'm hoping to do that when I'm over there next year.

I may as well hit a bunch of places.  I could line up permission from great homes/castles/National Trust places in advance of my using them in McLaren stories.  'In person' always seems to lend credence to a request, too.  Even tho I gave Lesley's name and phone number in my note, who knows where the email goes?  And when I talk to the curator or whomever, I can hand them a book, furthering my credentials.  Maybe I better have a list of potential usable places in my suitcase....

Anyway, plot three for McLaren is done and I think it's good.  He gets into a jam, thru no fault of his own, and things look a bit hairy for a while.  But he's a tough, resourceful guy, and can get out of trouble!

The McLaren posters that I ordered have arrived and I'll be offering them for sale in little over a week.  Thought I'd try an arts and crafts event.  I'll have a booth there and can kind of judge interest that way.  I realize people won't necessarily have read Siren Song, but someone ought to want to take McLaren home.  I mean, look at him!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Feel This Muscle

People show their muscles in different ways.  I am learning quickly about this.  Case in point: the publisher question still continues.  Four weeks ago my lawyer sent letter number three to the publisher.  September 2,  over two weeks ago, he got an email back, stating that she would respond to his letter when she's had a chance to look it over.  This entire thing has now dragged out for six weeks!  Think of it: she has kept me waiting, my life on hold, for six weeks while we wait for her to reply.  If that isn't power, I'll kiss a chicken on the lips.

It doesn't seem right to me that someone can keep a person dangling like that for so long.  She's fooling about with my publishing future.  I'm not too happy about that.

Maybe I need to create a little plaque or sign, hang it up near my computer monitor, reminding me that I shouldn't get mad but I should get even.  I would if I could figure out the rest of this book plot!  Still have to hear from any of those two curators.  Maybe this is a conspiracy against me and I'm just slow in figuring it out.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

All By Myself

Paul Schmit may have the good fortune of great customer service (see his current blog entry at his adventure to writing blogspot, but I can't seem to find any.  I'm plotting the third McLaren book.  I have the basic story line figured out.  But I am creating a puzzle in the book that McLaren has to solve.  For me to create this puzzle, I need to know a bit about the Harpur-Crewe family who owned one of the great houses in Derbyshire: Calke Abbey.  As I set a good portion of book 2, Swan Song, at the real Tutbury Castle, I want to set some of book 3 in a real place.

My first choice is Haddon Hall -- my favorite place in the world.  (The newest film version of Jane Eyre was filmed there, but I had toured the Hall years before.)  I emailed my question to the Info email, explaining about McLaren, Swan Song, Lesley Smith (curator of Tutbury Castle), her willingness to vouch for my sincerity, etc.  Nothing.  No reply.  Ignored.  Was the email reply lost in the hinterland of the Internet?  Did it end up in the junk mail folder and automatically get destroyed?  Did she/he think it was a hoax?  Is the curator (or whomever) on vacation and my request sitting on her/his desk?

So I came up with Calke Abbey as possibly a suitable place for my puzzle.  Again, the same reply...or lack of.

What am I to think of this discourteous treatment?  Are people really that paranoid about email messages?  I thought my title in the email subject line explained quite a bit before they would even read the email.  Perhaps I'm wrong.

Granted, I met Lesley Smith at Tutbury Castle while she was working.  Chatting with her face to face is no doubt different from getting a cold email.  But I gave her as a reference so that Haddon Hall's and Calke Abbey's curators would know I'm on the up and up about this.  And my request made it clear that I don't want family personal info: just something very generic.

I shake my head at the ill treatment.  I could write my story without their 'help' but I'd have to come up with another conundrum.  And I had a hard enough time coming up with this little bit!  Maybe I should stop writing and just knit capes for dogs....

Friday, September 17, 2010

No Rest for the Wicked

It dawned on me yesterday that in a week my author friend Esther Luttrell will be here -- in St Louis and staying with me.  She's staying with me as we hit the area on our talk/book signing tour.  It will be a learning experience, I'm sure, but it will also be fun to share the events with her.

She is the author of a mystery novel, Murder in the Movies, some screenwriting books, and her current book Dear Dean...Love, Mom.  She's working on the sequel to Murder in the Movies, which should be good, if M in the M is any indication.

Don't let the screenwriting books confuse you -- Esther spent years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Also as a television producer.  She is also an independent documentary writer and producer (many of her films have been aired on PBS.)  She is a super-talented lady.  If I had one tenth of her talent, I'd be thrilled!  Which is one reason why she'll be in St Louis next weekend.  She's giving a three-hour workshop on character development to my Sisters in Crime chapter.

That will be one of the less frantic bits of our weekend, I'm guessing.  I don't know what we were thinking (or if we were thinking!) when we put together our schedule.  Man, it'll either make us or break us.  The craziness begins Friday, Sept 24 with a 9 am talk at the Shepherd's Center.  Then she goes to a solo book signing that afternoon in Union, MO and I go to an alumni author event at my alma mater.  Both are at the same time and both run two hours, if you can believe it!  Saturday, Sept 25 is the 9 am workshop, followed by a book signing at Main Street Books from 2-4 pm, then we rush down to Ste. Genevieve, MO for a ghostly talk from 7-9 pm.  Sunday she talks at a lunch and we have our ghostly talk again at The Book House at 7 pm.  Monday we give our "Heart to Heart" talk at the Arnold library, speaking on our paths to publication.  Which, by the way, will be touted in the Jefferson County newspaper, as I was interviewed this week by a reporter.  I think we collapse on Tuesday, but I'm not sure.  My brain is already shutting down from fatigue!

Those ghostly talks....  That's the backbone of our tour.  Our Spirited Mysteries Tour.  Esther will talk about some ghostly things that have happened to her and family members, ghost stories passed down through the generations; I will talk about the ghostly/spirit-driven English customs that I used in three of the Taylor & Graham novels.  Sainted Murder deals with St Nicholas and his devilish companions, The Coffin Watchers uses the custom of watching the church porch -- a strange event whereby villagers take assigned times to sit on the church porch to watch for the spirits of the village's residents to pass by, a sighting confirming that the person will die within the year!  The third spirited custom is Turning the Devil's Stone, which I used in Horns of a Dilemma.  Each year the villagers must turn a one ton boulder to ensure that no disaster will befall the village, inhabitants and surroundings farms.  The stone was not turned one year during the first world war and a series of disasters did strike the district; ever since then the villagers make certain to turn the stone.  These are real customs and rather odd and spooky, so I'll talk about them.

 We repeat the zaniness, to a degree, again one weekend in October and in November when Esther returns.  By then we either will be hardened, experienced pros or borderline certifiable.

Should be fun, tho.  We've got four talk topics in all, so depending on the date and place we will be speaking on a variety of subjects.  I hope to see some friends at these venues, as well as make new friends.  We're looking to doing it all over again in the spring, but on a several-state tour.  Just so it doesn't interfere with my book signing at Tutbury Castle in the summer!  Hah!

McLaren Breathes

I got a smashing idea the other day. the British use it....not as the Americans use it.  Since McLaren has now taken 3-D form, is walking about and breathing, why not create a poster of him?  And offer it for sale?  I didn't deliberately set out to do this -- it came about so innocently as I was trying to decide which pose to use for my cardboard stand up (you've seen them in stores, whose life sized cardboard figures of movie stars).  It was no simple matter, for Don Keller, my photographer friend who does my book jacket photos, had taken many dozen snaps of McLaren.  McLaren at the stone wall, with the rock pick, with the silver charm, in a white Henley, in a black muscle shirt, looking thoughtful, smiling, kneeling, standing....  It was harder to decide on a pose than it is to decide which T-shirt to wear each day.  (You think I'm kidding.  Have you seen my collection of snapping sayings, New Zealand, Taylor & Graham, McLaren, L&L Dreamspell, police, and writer garments?)  Anyway, leafing through Don's super snaps lead me to putting a few of my favorites side by side for easier comparison.  When I got about a half dozen on the computer screen I realized I liked the effect.  What if I interspersed them with photos of Derbyshire stonewalls, the stone barn, Siren Song's book cover....  The result is the Lovely Poster.  20"x30", full color.

The model's audition photo.  When I saw it I still couldn't see McLaren in the face, but my friend Mary, who was here and looking at the computer monitor, said quite enthusiastically, "That's McLaren!"  I believed her...she's read Siren Song.   The specs for McLaren were fairly simple: a guy who looks to be in his 30s, muscular, and ruggedly handsome.  The model came through on all requirements, I think, even if I still can't see McLaren in the resulting photos!

Don took about a dozen photos of McLaren and the silver clue.  An important event in the story.  I shake my head over Don's memory.  Not only does he know events in the books but he also knows character names (like the Mahmoods in A Terrible Enemy -- something I've long forgotten!!!)  Don can tell you details, what happens in the plot....  When we were discussing a few ideas about poses for the photo shoot, Don would say something like, "I've got a fallen tree on my property.  I'll saw off some of the limbs and I can use that for the scene when McLaren moves the trunk with his car bumper."  Again, I shake my head.  How many people would remember that incident?
A great shot of McLaren at a stonewall.  I figured he would have muscular arms now even if he didn't as a cop.  A year of shifting stones about would either give you a nice set of biceps or land you in the chiropractor's office!
This gives you an idea of what the poster looks like, at least.  I think it turned out very nice.  I may update it when Swan Song comes out, but that's not till next April.  Anyway, it's certainly fun having McLaren around!  It pulls him into the realm of a real person, something I still can't feel even after writing eight Taylor & Graham books.  Every person who has seen McLaren's photo tells me yep, that is McLaren.  I probably got the most emphatic 'vote' for the McLaren model from my police detective friend David.  I have no idea if it's because David partnered with me in actually creating the McLaren character, but David swears this is McLaren, or very near to him.  Intelligent, but a rough side to him and a sharp edge that stands no nonsense from anyone.  Who, by indifferent means, gets it right for the victim and the victim's family.  I think, looking at the face of McLaren in these photos, that characteristic comes across.  And I hope the readers of the McLaren mysteries think so, too!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fun Idea from Dakota Banks

What a fun idea writer friend Dakota Banks has!  She has a contest based on her new book Sacrifice, part of her Mortal Path novels. 
Sacrifice Badge  

I'm way behind the times, if this is an indication of current contests, and I think I better rush right into the 21st century.  To cut myself some slack, though, I must admit quite truthfully that I do do the contest that she's touting -- my sister (a book store clerk who has seen many many many author signings with contests and giveaways) suggested the contest idea to me this past spring.  But my contest version is currently live and in-person at my book signings.  I don't know why it's never occurred to me to do it via my website.  Well, as I said, ya live and ya learn.

I owe Dakota Banks so much, by the way.  We were members of the Greater St Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime....don't know how many years we'd known each other when I got the idea and the courage to ask her to critique my current manuscript.  I wasn't published yet, but my manuscripts evidently were "close" to being accepted for publication.  At least, that's what a few editors implied by the one sentence notes they all scribbled on my manuscript's first page.  Close, but not close enough.  So what was the problem with it?  Was it my writing or the story?

I was in awe of Dakota (still am, for that matter -- she's a VERY detailed writer and has an incredible imagination that I can only imagine....) and nervous to approach her with the request for her help on my manuscript.  OK, more than nervous.  Apprehensive.  But my need to know my writing problem finally erupted one day and I swallowed my feeling and asked if she would read the thing.  Part of my anxiety came from the fact that, although fellow mystery writers, we didn't write the same sub genre.  My murders happened 'off stage,' while Dakota liked to show her readers exactly what was going on.  I was...ok, ok....afraid she would think my writing was first cousin to a skunk.

Well, I asked her, she said yes and read the thing.  Her professionalism shone through and she gave me many hand-written pages (front and back) of detailed criticism.  Constructive criticism.  Not the kind that tears down the work or author, but honest, no-honey-coated opinion and suggestion.  She had three suggestions, in fact, that astonished me: 1) change one of the men protagonists (my story was told usual-story-telling third-person about two male police detectives) to a female; 2) tell the story first-person from the female's point of view; 3) give the female a close friend whom she confides in -- this enables the first-person female to express her thoughts and emotions so the reader is let in on it.

At first I got my back up over these changes.  I liked my story the way it was!  It was my story, it was perfect!, it wasn't.  If it had been, it would've been published, Jo.  Duh.  Ok, ok, so it and I needed help.  Which was why I'd approached Dakota in the first place, right?  So I ignored my bruised ego and went through the entire manuscript, making Dakota's three suggestions.  When I finished and re-read the entire thing, I was amazed.  Shocked.  Ecstatic!!!!  The story leapt from the page.  It was fresh, alive, snapping with energy.  What's more, the characters danced and breathed and were real human beings!  Brenna Taylor had been born from a William Lynch, a sergeant to his superior, Detective Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham.  Margo Lynch (I liked the last name...I wasn't going to lose that!!) now walked beside Brenna and shared girl talk and became one of my favorite fact, a girl friend I wish I had always had.  I could not believe the change in the story or in my writing.  All due to making three changes.  All due to Dakota's insight and willingness to help me, an unpublished writer.

That was 2003.  The first publisher I sent the new manuscript to accepted it immediately and the rest, as they say....  So the book came out in 2004 and the characters are still with me, becoming greater friends with each tale I tell.  And letting me into their lives and learning who they are beyond their professional shells.

All due to Dakota.

So, I do owe Dakota a lot....not just for nudging me and showing me a great contest idea.  A contest you, too, can enter by going to

Good luck if you decide to participate in her contest.  I hope I read about one of us as a character in her next book!

Monday, September 13, 2010

End of an Era

Wow.  I feel old today.  Plus sad.  I got an email from Stephen Quigg, announcing the retirement of Ian McCalman.  Now, I realize most of you might not know who Stephen and Ian are, much less what retirement is referred to.  Ian McCalman is one third of the founding guys who formed The McCalmans, a Scottish folk singing trio in 1964.  They have been singing non stop ever since!  22 records, toured literally all over the world, several BBC TV shows and radio shows to their credit.  Hamish Bayne, one of the original guys, left the group in the 1990s, to be replaced by Nick Keir.  When Derek Moffat (original member No. 3) died of cancer in 2001, Stephen Quigg joined.

The McCalmans are known for their close three-part harmonies, respect for traditional Scottish music, and great sense of humor on stage.  They also sing very fine contemporary songs which all members, I believe, have written.  They play traditional folk instruments: guitar, bodhran, mandolin, tin whistle, banjo....

When I got Stephen's email today announcing Ian's retirement I had no inkling that Ian was counting down the days.  The date for their last gig is Dec 10 in Edinburgh.  Wish I could be there!

I heard them several times in concert in folk clubs in England.  But my greatest thrill was when the original group came to St Louis for two weeks in 1980.  I acted as their 'US manager' -- unpaid but loving every minute of it -- and had got them performances all over the area.  They stayed with me in my apartment and besides listening to them rehearse (you haven't heard anything until you've heard these three guys let loose in a capella harmony up close and personal!!) we had fun looking at the St Louis tourist attractions (getting their over-six foot frames into the Arch capsules for a ride to the top was a feat.).

I feel old, knowing that Ian is about to retire and the group is folding.  I remember the fun we had thirty years ago.  Thirty years....was I ever that young?  I feel sad because their wonderful music will become another piece of music history via records and CDs and not performed in concert.

This photo is downloaded from a website.  All my photos are slides, so I have to make do with this generic version.  The caption of the photo is "Old Macs" to distinguish the original group from the Stephen and Nick era.  I wish the labeler had written "Original Macs."  It is a more respectful title and one that many of us recall when the McCalmans' name crops up.  The guys, left to right, are Derek Moffat, Ian McCalman, and Hamish Bayne.  This is exactly how I picture them when I think of the Macs.  This is 'my era' guys.

Stephen and Nick are continuing as a duo, Stephen's email announces -- but for me it won't be the same.

Nor, I suspect, for McLaren.  Being my folksinging detective, I have mentioned the McCalmans and some of their songs in both of McLaren's books, Siren Song and Swan Song.  I've also mentioned the Macs in at least two Taylor & Graham books.  Sainted Murder comes to mind -- the scene where Brenna is sitting at a table in the pub and the canned music plays one of the Macs' songs while she's talking to Graham.

For anyone wishing more information on their last concert in Edinburgh, logon to'+Final+Concert   Of course, I can't go, so I may spend that day looking at my slides of them and their introduction to hot dogs on July Fourth....