Alice Duncan, Full Bloom in Life’s Rose Garden

What you should know about Alice, from her website:

“I’m Alice Duncan, Emma Craig, Rachel Wilson, Anne Robins, and even Jon Sharpe a couple of times. Alice, Emma, Rachel and Anne all write historical novels, both romances and mysteries. Jon wrote westerns. Two of them. When I was young and didn’t know any better, I wanted to write the Great American Novel. After life kicked me around for a few decades, I decided I not only don’t want to write the Great American Novel, I don’t even want to read it. What I like in my reading material is to be taken away from life’s travails for a few hours. That’s what I aim to do in my own novels, and I consider it a most worthwhile goal.”

Just between us, I do well just to keep up with Alice Duncan, never mind all her other disguises. My favorites of her books are those set in 1920s Los Angeles. That time and place wafts across the page like a fine, light perfume.

I just read one of her books that had me laughing from beginning to end. It’s the first in her Mercy Allcutt series, and here’s my review.
***
LOST AMONG THE ANGELS
By Alice Duncan

From Chapter One:
(Quote)
You know how people always say that writers should write what they know? Well, l didn’t know anything. How can you write novels if you haven’t lived? And I don’t care what anybody says, living on Beacon Hill in Boston during the fall and winter and then in a mansion (called a “cottage”) on Cape Cod during the spring and summer isn’t really living. Oh, maybe if you’re a man it is, because you still get to leave your mansion and go work in the city. But if you’re a woman, all you do on Beacon Hill or Cape Cod is sit in your gilded cage, order your butler around, and look down on the rest of the world. Play tennis occasionally. Gossip. Hire and fire servants. That’s not for me, darn it.
Don’t tell my mother I said darn it, please.
(End Quote)

Meet Mercy Allcutt, age 21, escaping her stultifying Boston background for the home of her sister, Chloe, whose husband, Harvey, is a movie studio big shot. With her bred-in-the-bone manners, speech and dress, Mercy is lost among the angels of a gaudy 1920s Los Angeles.

She quickly learns that nobody in Los Angeles uses a last name, and every other person, no matter how shopworn, kills time in menial work while waiting to be discovered and turned into a movie star. Determined to fit in and get “experience” Mercy takes a secretarial job with a PI named Ernie.

An ex-cop, Ernie is straight out of Central Casting. Think a young Spencer Tracy, leaner and meaner but rumpled in appearance and attitude. He pegs Mercy as a slumming rich girl who will last about 15 minutes in a job but what the hey. He hires her and takes her to lunch.

Mercy’s office skills and good manners make her the perfect receptionist, but as an apprentice P.I. – her true goal — she has ten thumbs and two left feet. Her adventures begin with concern for a waif whose mother, a dancer at the notorious Kit Kat Klub, has disappeared. This thrusts the agency into cases involving everything from murder to drug smuggling. Mercy makes the scene and never loses her hat.

Mercy is a pip. I laughed all the way through this book and stayed up until 4:00 in the morning to finish it. I was still laughing when I turned out the light. Not a bad way to end one day and start another.
***
Alice Duncan’s web site is at http://www.aliceduncan.net/

Murder, He Wrote … and Wrote … and Wrote

Pity the poor conference chair who must introduce Tom Sawyer. The man has done everything from comic strips to a contemporary opera based on the life of John F. Kennedy. Writer of more than 100 network TV episodes, he was also producer, creative consultant or story editor on such network series as “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Law & Harry McGraw.” His first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, is a thriller with a stunning twist on the Kennedy assassination. NO PLACE TO RUN, his new thriller from Sterling & Ross, is the first novel to make the case that people high in the U.S. enabled 9/11.

Tom is the creator of PLOTS UNLIMITED, an interactive plot-generating software for fiction writers, and co-creator of its successor, STORYBASE, published by Ashleywilde, Inc. He travels the country as a conference speaker and guest lecturer. His book FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, also published by Ashleywilde, Inc., is a user-friendly and entertaining course in the specifics of fiction writing.

I first met Tom online, 11 years ago almost to the day. We were both in an iUniverse chatroom on May 15, 2001. I still have my printout of the transcript of that session. Tom had just written his first thriller, THE SIXTEENTH MAN. I read the book and we have been e-mail friends ever since.

Sometimes you get lucky. Tom was a presenter at the Oklahoma Writers Federation conference in Oklahoma City this past weekend, and I finally got to meet Tom and his wonderful wife, Holly, in person. They met my sister Beth and me for Sunday brunch and a chin-fest before catching their plane home.

Tom has a million stories about his life in show biz and the writing world. If he ever writes a memoir I’ll be first in line to buy it. He also had some interesting stories about his research into the JFK assassination. Fascinating – and scary – stuff.

But the popular vote, if one were taken, would probably go to “Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996). It surely is one of the best long-running series TV ever gave us, and Tom has some great stories about that as well. Angela Lansbury was pure delight as Jessica Fletcher, and the guest stars were – well, everybody who was anybody showed up sooner or later.

The best news is that all seasons are available on DVD from Amazon.com. An embarrassment of riches, you think, and not cheap. How do you know which season to pick first? No problem. At Epguides.com, Jeff DeVouge lists all 264 episodes, episode by episode, with a logline and cast of characters. It’s at http://tinyurl.com/73qndzc

For more information about Thomas B. Sawyer and his works, check out his web site: www.thomasbsawyer.com/

Tom and Holly make a great couple. Meeting them was such a pleasure. My thanks to both of them for their generosity and friendship.

A Thriller That Asks, What if?

This year will mark the 49th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I’ll be re-reading Thomas B. Sawyer’s novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, for the umpteenth time. This is a novel that is still as timely as the event itself, what with real-life stories still in the news. For one, former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who was charged with safeguarding Jacqueline Kennedy, has written his memoir of those times and that day in particular.

Sawyer’s novel grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let go. All the time I was reading, I had the feeling he knew something I didn’t, perhaps knew what really happened on that dreadful day in Dallas. What if … what if …

From the Synopsis on Sawyer’s web site:
“Dr. Matthew Packard’s relationships and his career are at crisis points when he’s almost killed in a motorcycle accident in Muleshoe Canyon, near Moab, Utah. The mishap results in his discovery of an ancient burial shaft containing sixteen male skeletons. Fifteen of them date back 100,000 years, dramatically older than any human remains ever found in the Americas….”

From Chapter One:
“He’d been staring at nothing in particular. But then he saw it. Another skull – somehow different from the first one. Packard reached down, brought it up to eye-level, dusted the rear surface. ‘Okay, I’m examining another cranium. This one doesn’t appear to be as – wait a minute…’ He had turned it so that he was looking into its face. ‘This one, there are a few hairs attached. And the teeth – Christ, they’ve got silver fillings.’”

In alternating chapters, Sawyer tells two stories separated by more than 30 years in time.

First story, set in 1963: Tracking an errant wife whose husband wants evidence for divorce, a private eye accidentally photographs a small group of men with rifles, one of whom is a dead ringer for Lee Harvey Oswald.

Second story, set in present time: A dirt bike accident dumps an archaeologist near a rock fissure that leads him to a pile of skulls and bones. Fifteen sets of bones appear to be thousands of years old, but the sixteenth skull still has some hair attached, and there are silver fillings in the teeth.

Sawyer weaves these stories together so smoothly that hair on the back of my neck stands up when the story threads cross. The ending, on a narrow cliff in Muleshoe Canyon, is a knockout.

Sawyer writes: “Random events. Causes. Effects. Paths crossing, tangents briefly met, then curving away. All of it so incredibly random, and yet — what — fated?”

I think: It’s fiction. That didn’t happen. But what if? What if?

A thriller to take your breath away

So now we approach the halfway mark of this year and are hard-charging toward the fall and winter holidays. Don’t know about you, but my tongue is hanging out. What a year – one disaster after another, and that’s just the weather. We do live in interesting times.

Tom Sawyer has such an inventive way with conspiracy novels they leave the reader wondering if he made the whole thing up or if it might just have happened that way. His latest thriller – and Number One Bestseller – is NO PLACE TO RUN. Published in 2009 by Sterling & Ross, it was voted Best Novel of 2009 by the American Book Readers Association. A political conspiracy thriller, it’s the first novel to make the case that the 9/11 hijackers received serious help from high up within the U.S.

All that’s left is for Hollywood to pick up NO PLACE TO RUN. It would make a dandy movie, and that really would give this year a glorious turn. Here’s my review of the novel.

NO PLACE TO RUN by Thomas B. Sawyer
Sterling & Ross 2009
Opening lines:
***
There it was again.
Ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka…
He stopped breathing.Then, almost as quickly as they had come the noises diminished,
vanished. He exhaled. His pulse began to slow. Once again, the loudest sound in the murky foyer was his heartbeat.

A rat, probably. As frightened as I am. Strike that. Not even close. Bill Lawrence realized he’d lost count. His fear bordered on terror. Not of getting caught–he was here, after all, with the tenant’s permission. At his request, actually. Nor was
it the singularity of what he was doing. Skulking on his hands and knees in dark places was well outside Bill’s normal professional activities.
***
You might assume from the riveting first pages that Bill Lawrence is the protagonist. You might be right. You might be wrong. Things are not always what they seem in this Byzantine tale of the discovery of certain facts about the events leading to 9/11 – and the desperate, damn-the-costs attempt to prevent them from emerging.

What rogue federal agents do to protect a powerful Washington figure with a connection to the terror attacks of 9/11 makes for nasty
business. Sawyer brings it down to human levels with a 24 year-old sister and her young brother running for their lives, trusting no one, not even the agent intent on saving them, as they try to solve the cryptic evidence uncovered by their father.

The 12-year-old brother, who has made a science of outwitting adults, adds a humorous note to this nail-biting, stomach-churning story.

Sawyer is a TV/film veteran and it shows in the quick cuts from scene to scene, with no wasted motion. The first few chapters are like the
opening of a suspenseful movie. People appear and disappear with only the briefest of introduction or explanation. There are visuals – scraps of scratch-paper notes and news clips.

Along about page 50 the story stretches out a little with a bit of back story. But don’t get comfortable. The whole thing blows up with a shocking twist, and takes off in a different, unexpected direction.

The great director Alfred Hitchcock described a McGuffin as “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”

Here, it’s the papers. Draw your own conclusions. Sawyer’s McGuffin propels the plot right up to the surprise ending.

NO PLACE TO RUN is an exciting, satisfying, thought-provoking stomach-churner, one worth staying up late to finish.

Tom’s web site is http://www.ThomasBSawyer.com

If computers were Fords …


This is the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. I tracked it down to the Snopes web site, where it’s listed as an urban legend. Apparently it started as a simple joke about 1997 and just grew from there. The Snopes web site is at:
http://www.snopes.com/humor/jokes/autos.asp

But urban legend or not, it’s still funny, and here it is.
***
At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, “If Ford had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”

In response to Bill’s comments, Ford issued a press release stating:
“If Ford had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be
driving cars with the following characteristics:”

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash …twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive — but would run on only five percent of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single “This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation” warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask “Are you sure?” before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You’d have to press the “Start” button to turn the engine off. When all else fails, you could call ‘”customer service” in some foreign country and be instructed in some foreign language how to fix your car yourself.

***

A gently told tale of mystery and mayhem


A FAIR TO DIE FOR by Radine Trees Nehring is the seventh book in her series and the third book I’ve read. I always enjoy seeing the Ozarks through her mysteries.

This gently told cozy series features two older people for whom love is better the second time around. Carrie McCrite and Henry King, a retired policeman from Kansas City, have the best of intentions but still get caught up in other people’s problems, mayhem and murders.

A FAIR TO DIE FOR takes place during the War Eagle Craft Fair, and begins with a phone call from Carrie’s long lost cousin Edie, whose excuse for looking up Carrie is suspicious. Edie spells trouble and seems unusually interested in the War Eagle Craft Fair. Carrie and Henry are too well-mannered to throw her out, so they go along with her strange behavior and even stranger excuses. Eventually they are drawn into what seems to be a drug smuggling operation and murder.

Curiosity and a misguided sense of safety set Carrie up for kidnapping and brutalization. I admit I cringed when reading about the rough treatment handed out by Carrie’s kidnappers. However, the author injects a bit of humor to relieve some of the tension in this part of the story.

Carrie has left a copy of Eugene Peterson’s THE MESSAGE Bible on a table in her home. Henry, almost wiped out by worry, picks up the book, reads a passage and then compares it with the same passage in the King James version. The King James version: “Blessed is the man that walketh in the counsel of the ungodly.” Peterson’s version: “How well God must like you—You don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.”

When Carrie is under pressure her mind works like a steel trap, and her response to peril is both believable and satisfying. The story also touches on a moral dilemma — the Stockholm Syndrome, so-called when kidnap victims begin to identify with their captors.

The series has won several awards, and Nehring is justly celebrated in Arkansas for her portrayal of the state’s attractions as settings for her mysteries. Books in the series are:

A VALLEY TO DIE FOR (2002);
MUSIC TO DIE FOR (2003) set in Ozark Folk Center State Park;
A TREASURE TO DIE FOR (2005) set in Hot Springs National Park;
A WEDDING TO DIE FOR (2006) set in the Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs;
A RIVER TO DIE FOR (2008) set on the Buffalo National River
JOURNEY TO DIE FOR (2010) set during an excursion by train.
and this one, A FAIR TO DIE FOR (June 2012) set during the War Eagle Craft Fair.

For the curious – I looked up a couple of things.
There’s information on The Message bible by Eugene Peterson at Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Message_(Bible).
The site also compares three versions of The 23rd Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer – the King James version, the New International version and The Message version.

Information on the War Eagle Craft Show is at:
http://www.wareaglemill.com/fair.html
At the Bean Palace Restaurant on the third floor of the Mill, the lunch specialty is beans and cornbread, made with cornmeal ground on a 150-year old stone buhr mill on the first floor of the Mill. Henry and Carrie have just finished lunch there when she is kidnapped.

The author’s web site is at:
http://www.radinesbooks.com

Old news, art,life and Ian Rankin

Online newspapers are forever recycling the news. Anything to fill up space, I suppose. More than once lately I’ve read an interesting story, only to look at the dateline and see that it’s a year old.

So when I read that Hungary was trying a 97-year-old war criminal, I googled the story and learned that Sandor Kepiro was tried, acquitted and died a year ago. So much for breaking news.

I have always been fascinated by the relentless pursuit of WW2 Nazis, something that seemed to me to be unproductive. However, Ian Rankin’s novel THE HANGING GARDEN changed my outlook entirely. That new perception comes in handy when I read about cold cases heating up and criminals on the lam for 40 years being brought into court.

At Bourchercon-Las Vegas (2003) I stood in line to get Rankin’s signature. When my turn came, I opened THE HANGING GARDEN to that particular passage and told him how much I liked it. He read it, seemed pleased (or surprised, hard to tell) by what he had written, and signed that page for me.

In the book, Inspector Rebus tracks a World War II Nazi, now living a quiet, respectable life in the UK. There’s much more to the plot than bringing an old war criminal to justice, but that’s the part that lodged in my mind. Rebus, doubting the wisdom of dogging an old man, takes those doubts to a Holocaust historian named Levy. Levy tells him:

“The question you’ve no doubt been pondering is the same one I’ve asked myself on occasions: can time wash away responsibility? For me, the answer would have to be no. The thing is this, Inspector … You are not investigating the crimes of an old man, but those of a young man who now happens to be old. Focus your mind on that. There have been investigations before, half-hearted affairs. Governments wait for these men to die rather than have to try them. But each investigation is an act of remembrance, and remembrance is never wasted. Remembrance is the only way we learn.”

There’s also something to be said for newspaper archives. Rankin was awarded an OBE in 2002 and there’s an interesting article, with a photo of Rankin holding up the medal, still available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/2347071.stm.

Tales from Singapore

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Picture this: A dinner party at the residence of the American Deputy Chief of Mission in Singapore. Guests are Robbie Cutler, fresh from the basic diplomatic course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington,Virginia; James McLarty, Third Secretary of the British High Commission; French Vice Consul Etienne Marigot and his wife, Suzanne; Russian trade attaché Basil Kamirkoff; and Emily Brook, a teacher at the  American International School.

 When talk turns to Singapore’s wealth of material for writers and storytellers, Basil says: “After all, we are Russian, French, British (don’t quibble McLarty!), and American. That covers the greats of short story writing … Chekhov, Maupassant, Maugham and O.Henry. I propose we start a story club, here and now.” 

That’s the setup for four intriguing stories that may be partly imaginary but are rooted in truth.

Robbie spins a tale of a love triangle and a murderous rage fueled by the fruit of the durian tree, a popular but ugly, foul-smelling fruit said to be a great aphrodisiac.

McLarty and Emily share the story of a climbing expedition up Mount Kinabuluin Borneo, and of exploring Kinabalu National Park. The park is home to the tree-dwelling great ape, the Orang Utan, “an animal that shares 97% of homo sapiens’ DNA.” The heart of McLarty’s story is his dream of an encounter with a family of Orang Utans.

Marigot’s story takes us back to 1954 and the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which sounds the death knell for French colonialism. Years later, when Marigot is about 10 years old, a T’ai woman shows up at his grandparents’ house with personal items left by Marigot’s grandfather when he escaped from VietNam. Grandfather Marigot’s poignant story, which his family hears for the first time, reveals the utter madness of war.

Basil tells the legendary story of Jim Thompson, the “Thai silk king.” Thompson was an OSS officer in World War II, later a CIA agent and finally a Bangkok businessman. In 1967 he went on holiday with friends to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. One afternoon he walked into the jungle to look for rare orchids and was never heard from again.

Basil takes the story that far, and leaves it up to the other storytellers to offer their opinions on what really happened to Jim Thompson. That’s a real-life guessing game that still continues.

Jim Thompson’s house is a national museum, and two YouTube videos portray his life and legacy. There are gorgeous photos of his house and a dinner party/reception, scenes of silk weavers at work in the Thai Silk Company and tourists shopping for silk.

YouTube URLs:

Jim Thompson – The Man and the Legend Part 1

http://tinyurl.com/7c9jd4q

Jim Thompson – The Man and the Legend Part 2

http://tinyurl.com/d4eejn3

 

Marilyn on the go

It’s a pleasure to welcome Marilyn Meredith, a longtime friend from California. We both belonged to San Joaquin Sisters in Crime, headquartered in Fresno. The old snapshot here shows just how far back we go!

Taken at a meeting in Fresno, we are, from left, Marilyn Meredith; Victoria Heckman of Los Osos, CA and author of the K.O.’d in Hawaii Mystery Series; Jo Anne Lucas of Clovis, CA and immediate past president of San Joaquin Sisters in Crime; Lorie Ham of Reedly, CA. and author of the Alexandra Walters Mystery Series; and Pat Browning, then of Hanford, CA.,  who is still working on her second book … and working … and fidgeting … and pondering … and working … and out of excuses …

Other photos: Arnold “Hap” and Marilyn Meredith at the EpiCon conference in Oklahoma City, 2004;  Hap, the cute sailor Marilyn met and married so long ago; Marilyn at the book signing table, Left Coast Crime-Monterey, 2004

 ***

Marilyn Meredith is the author of over 30 published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, the latest being Bears With Us from Mundania Press. Writing as F. M. Meredith, her latest Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novel is Angel Lost. NO BELLS is a Rocky Bluff P.D. novel focusing on Officer Gordon Butler whose new love is the prime suspect in a murder case.

Marilyn is a member of EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection), three  chapters of Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America. She is also on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America.

Visit her at http://fictionforyou.com and her blog at http://marilymeredith.blogspot.com/

Marilyn and her husband Arnold–known as Hap to their friends—met on a blind date 60 years ago. “He was a cute sailor from the Port Hueneme Seabee base and I was a high school senior in Eagle Rock,” she recalls. “Three of my friends met me with their dates, also servicemen, and we all took the streetcar to Chinatown in downtownLos Angeles, where we ate, danced and got acquainted.

 A few months later, Marilyn and Hap were married. Marilyn picks up the story:

(Quote) We lived inOxnard(California) for over 20 years, where I had four of my five children and my husband served in the Seabees, going to Vietnam three times during that war. I PTA’d, edited the PTA newsletter, served as a Camp Fire leader, wrote plays the kids starred in, went to college at night, taught for ten years in a school for three- to eight-year-olds with development disabilities, and wrote two historical family sagas.

One was about my father’s family, who came to Springville (inCentral California’s Sierra Foothills) in the early 1850s. Researching, we visited Springville. My husband didn’t like how big Oxnard was getting and wanted to move. The only place I would agree to was Springville. The house we wanted on the river was too expensive, but the people who owned it were in the residential care business. One thing led to another, and we jumped through all the necessary hoops, moved to our home on the TuleRiver, and started a new career. The residential care business was very compatible with my writing, as the women we shared our home with went to work every weekday, leaving me time to write.

We recently retired from the residential care business, and for the first time in 17 years we’re both free to travel together. He’s been having as much fun as I have. You should have seen him demonstrating how to read books on the Rocket eReader at the Hard Shell publishing table in the booksellers area at Bouchercon! (End Quote)

Marilyn makes good use of California locations in her books. LINGERING SPIRIT, a romance with the touch of the supernatural, now both in paper and on Kindle, begins and ends in beach town much like Oxnard, and the middle is in a mountain community with a resemblance to El DoradoCounty. All of the Rocky Bluff P.D. series, including the latest, NO BELLS, are set in a fictional beach community located between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

All of Marilyn’s Deputy Tempe Crabtree books, including the latest, BEARS WITH US, bear a striking resemblance to the foothill community where Marilyn lives now, which includes the nearby Tule River Indian Reservation.

About her Rocky Bluff series, written as F.M. Meredith, she says: “I became interested in writing about law enforcement when my son-in-law was a police officer and over coffee told me all about his adventures. He also took me on a ride-along and I was hooked. I belong to the Public Safety Writers Association and have many friends in law enforcement.” 

 Time now for some Q and A:

Pat: Marilyn, you have a full calendar. This past year you’ve given presentations in various places in Central and Southern California including a Readers Club, a Historical Society, a couple of libraries, two colleges, and you’ve traveled to Sedona AZ to give talks at the library and the Well Red Coyote Book Store. Then there’s the Public Safety Writers Association’s conference inLas Vegas and the Killer Nashville Conference, the Cuesta College Writers Conference inSan Luis Obispo as well as the Central Coast Book Fair. And I hear you also went to Epicon inSan Antonio and Left Coast Crime inSacramento this year. Good times aside, why so many conferences and conventions?

Marilyn:  I began going to writing conferences to learn–and learn I did, plus I increased my circle of friends. At a writers’ conference, everyone understands what you do and what is important to you. Once I got published, I looked for opportunities to be a speaker at conferences, where I could acquaint people with my books and gain new readers.

Mystery conventions are a bit different, though I have learned some from them, the main point, I think is to meet readers and promote your books. (And yes, they are fun too.)

I also found a critique group, and still belong to it after 30 years. I learned more from the group than from any class or book.

Pat:  Can you tell us a little more about your critique group?

Marilyn:  My critique group at the moment consists of six people: a retired high school English teacher who has published two books, a woman who recently published a memoir, 2 young teachers, and one has published several children’s books and does a regular column in the newspaper, and one man who keeps us straight on male subjects. The group has changed over the years as people have come and gone, but all have been helpful. I think of them as my first editor.

Pat: Your books have been e-published since the beginning and now most are available on Kindle. How did you get started with e-publishing?

Marilyn:  My first dealing with an e-publisher happened by accident. I submitted a book to a publisher I found through the Writers Market and I didn’t know he was an e-publisher until he sent me a contract. I thought, “Why not?” He was a bit before his time, and before hand-held readers. He eventually went out of business.

My second e-publisher also bit the dust. But then others came into the field with a little more knowledge about formatting the books for the new e-readers, and how to publicize them. And now, of course, nearly everyone is savvy about e-pubs and e-readers. 

Pat: What practical advice would you give someone who is just starting to write a mystery novel?

Marilyn: Develop your characters. Decide who to kill, and why they should die. Find several people with the motive and opportunity, and get started. Don’t be surprised if the killer is someone you didn’t suspect.

Pat:  Do you have a writing schedule? A home office? What are your thoughts on the writing life?

Marilyn: I have a home office, and I do some form of writing every day. If I wrote for the money, I’d have quit long ago. I write because I have to. The story pops into my head and I have to put it down on paper. There are many perks to writing besides money–the people you meet, both readers and other writers.

Pat: Any closing thoughts?

Marilyn: I think the writing community is probably the most supportive of any that I’ve been a part of–which is amazing, since essentially we’re more or less in competition with one another. I don’t know any other business where the competition is so helpful and in many cases, actually loving.

 * * *

Books in the Rocky Bluff P.D. Crime series by F.M. Meredith

No Bells, Angel Lost, An Axe to Grind, No Sanctuary, Smell of Death, Fringe Benefits, Bad Tidings, Final Respects

 No Bells Blurb:

Officer Gordon Butler has finally found the love he’s been seeking for a long time, but there’s one big problem, she’s the major suspect in a murder case.

Bio:

F.M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels—and a few that will never see print. Her latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, from Oak Tree Press, is No Bells. Rocky Bluff P.D. is a fictional beach community betweenVentura andSanta Barbara and F. M. once lived in a similar beach area.

F. M. (Marilyn) is a member of EPIC, Four chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and serves as the program chair for the Public Safety Writers of America’s writing conference. She’s been an instructor at many writing conferences. 

Visit her at http://fictionforyou.com and her blog at http://marilynmeredith.blogspot.com

CONTEST NOTE FROM MARILYN: The person who comments on the most blogs on my tour will win three books in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series: No Sanctuary, An Axe to Grind, and Angel Lost. Be sure and leave your email too, so I can contact you.

Tom Sawyer and the Curse of the Non-Scene

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“The evil that men do lives after them; the good  …. ” 

Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, but the good is not always interred with their bones. Sometimes it just lurks there in my computer files. I do a search for “Marilyn Meredith” and up pops “Sinc and Swim” from my stint as editor of the newsletter for Sisters in Crime-Internet Chapter.
 
This newsletter (February 2005, Issue #47) is apparently the last one I published before moving from California to Oklahoma and losing track of the whole kit and caboodle. The issue was full of good stuff, including an excerpt on the curse of the “non-scene” from Thomas B. Sawyer’s book, FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED.
 
Pity the poor conference chair who must introduce Tom Sawyer. The man has done everything from comic strips to a contemporary opera based on the life of John F. Kennedy. Writer of more than 100 network TV episodes, he was also producer, creative consultant or story editor on such network series as “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Law & Harry McGraw.” His first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, is a thriller with a stunning twist on the Kennedy assassination. NO PLACE TO RUN, his new thriller from Sterling & Ross, is the first novel to make the case that people high in the U.S. enabled 9/11.
 
Tom is the creator of PLOTS UNLIMITED, an interactive plot-generating software for fiction writers, and co-creator of its successor, STORYBASE, published by Ashleywilde, Inc. He travels the country as a conference speaker and guest lecturer. His book FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, also published by Ashleywilde, Inc., is a user-friendly and entertaining course in the specifics of fiction writing.
 
Chapter Five of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED is about constructing a story. With Tom’s kind permission I excerpted for my newsletter his description of what he calls the non-scene, and reprint it again here. Will it surprise you to learn that the hardest scene to write without turning it into a snoozer is the love scene?

For more information about Thomas B. Sawyer and his works, check out these web sites:
www.thomasbsawyer.com/ and http://storybase.net/.

CURSE OF THE NON-SCENE: An excerpt from FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED by Thomas B. Sawyer. Chapter Five of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED is about constructing a story. Read on.

(Quoting)

THE NON-SCENE —  CAUSES AND CURES        

*The scene in which all of the characters are in agreement with  each other.

*The scene inserted solely for the purpose of exposition, of  passing along information to the audience.

*The scene that is basically “mechanical” in the sense that its excuse for being there — its purpose — is to establish a certain fact, or to get this or that character from Point A to Point B for plot purposes.

*The scene that merely platforms a story-element or clue without achieving anything else. Without adding anything new, or advancing inter-character conflicts.

*The scene containing no dramatic or comedic value.

*The scene that fails to entertain.

All of these are what we describe in television as non-scenes. And I mark them as such in scripts that I’m editing. They’re dull, amateurish, and not acceptable.

They also have something else in common: If whatever they accomplish is essential to your story, they can almost always be incorporated into other, more interesting scenes.

It’s worth repeating here that among the most important of the many self-editing questions you need to ask yourself is — where is the heat in each scene? Where’s the tension in each moment? Where is the conflict? Where’s the edge? What’s going on in this transaction beyond the transaction itself? Again, the heat need not be in what they’re talking about or otherwise acting out, but rather in the sub text, a topic discussed more fully in Chapter Six.

Further, each scene should pass the writer’s “What does it accomplish?” test. Does it move the story to another place? Does it expose another side of one or more of the characters?

If the answer is no, it’s telling you to rethink it.

Non-scenes are what cause your audience to dial out. The good news is — the condition is fixable. In ways suggested earlier in this book, as well as others you’ll figure out for yourself. Sometimes the solution will be to eliminate the scene, or to combine it with another. Or — to find another layer, another level further beneath the surface of one or more of your characters — one that provides the needed spark that will bring the scene to life.

But first, you need to recognize when you’ve committed a non-scene, to set your own detector to begin flashing when the problem shows up.

The toughest scene to write so that it won’t be a non-scene is, as mentioned earlier, the love scene. The scene between two people who agree with each other. Because on the face of it, it doesn’t have conflict, ergo it has no drama. Ergo it has no entertainment value. Even if it’s gussied up with literal eroticism, or with jokes — unless the humor — or the acrobatics, contain some conflict.

Examine the earlier-referenced opening of Preston Sturges’ film, Christmas in July, and you’ll see one of the very best examples of how to make such a moment work. I think you will also be impressed by how much, in terms of subtle exposition, Sturges shows us about the couple — and how quickly he sketches it in — without being on-the-nose.

What continues to astonish me, in novels, television shows, and in so many big-or-small budget movies, is how often edges are missing from scenes, or even from entire stories. One of the liberating benefits of the VCR and DVD is that if a movie viewed at home fails to grab us in — say — the first fifteen or twenty minutes, we can — and do — bail out with less hesitation than if we’d laid out nine or ten dollars per theater ticket — plus overpriced candy and popcorn. Or popped for a pricey, over-hyped hardcover book that turns out to be unreadable.

Obviously, considering the number of such novels that are published, and films released, containing long, uninteresting, nonconfrontational scenes, there are quite a few successful professionals out there who seem to disagree with me about the need for consistent, ever-present conflict as the tool for grabbing — and then holding onto — the audience.

Are they wrong? I believe they are. Would their work be more effective, more involving, if they did agree? I know it would. Or — could it be — they simply don’t know any better…?

Next time you encounter a piece that fails to engage you because it lacks edge, or story, or compelling characters, I suggest that you question it in at least the following terms: How could the author have made it better? How, if you were given the opportunity of rewriting or editing the material, could you have made it better?

It seems a near-universal truth that it’s far easier to learn from bad stuff than from good. The good — novels, short stories, plays, movies — seem to transport us into their world, taking us along on their ride, anesthetizing most of our critical faculties. At least until we revisit them.

And than there are those rare jewels — the really good ones that get better as, with each encounter, we bring something new to the table. In my own experience, re-reading Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at ten or fifteen-year intervals has been like reading a fresh, ever-better book each time.

The good ones accomplish what we, as writers, hope to do.

 —- from FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, © 2003 by Thomas B. Sawyer, published by Ashleywilde, Inc., ISBN 0-9627476-1-0.

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