Tag: funny cozy mysteries

“You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along.”

I do not recommend trying to become a writer.

In fact, I’m not even sure I know what “becoming a writer” is. When I published the first Lindsay Harding novel, did that make me a writer? Or was it the brief and shining moment when the first book climbed to the top of Amazon’s cozy mystery rankings for a couple of days? Or when I got my first royalty check? Maybe it was when I won my first writing contest. Does the fact of having published three novels and half a dozen short stories mean that I’ve permanently achieved writerdom? Or if I cease to publish but still write, do I remain a writer?

These questions plagued me toward the end of 2018. (Remember 2018, when existential angst could involve mundane things like career aspirations?) I’d decided that 2019 was going to be a decisive year for my writing. I vowed to “become a writer” by age 40. Despite my progress toward that goal, by October 2019 my 41st birthday loomed, and I still felt like an impostor. After a few decent earnings years, my royalty income had dwindled to pocket change. I’d finished a manuscript for my middle-grade adventure novel, MINERVA MURGATROYD AND THE VERY OLD BOY, but after several near misses, I was unable to find representation for it. I blew out the candles on my 41st birthday with a heavy heart. Forty had come and gone with no real progress toward my writing goal. My day job had ramped up and I felt pressure to follow the steady paycheck and turn my back on my writing hobby.

And then, two days after my 41st birthday, I got a message from Lyndee Walker, a bestselling mystery novelist I’d met at a few conferences over the years. Lyndee had heard from her agent that St. Martin’s press was looking to develop a new mystery series. She didn’t have time to pitch for it herself, but she remembered me and thought I might be a good fit for the project. All she knew was that it was on the very cozy end of the mystery spectrum–it needed to be set in a pizza restaurant and to prominently feature a cat. The marketing folks had already road tested the concept and found that “Pizza Cat Mystery” was a niche that needed to be filled. Now, they just needed to find a writer who could pull the project off.

When I told my sister about this unexpected opportunity, she reminded me how only weeks earlier, I’d decided to throw in the towel on my writing dreams. “You never know when your pizza cat mystery will come along,” has since become our family’s version of “Persistence pays off.”

Fast forward to March of this year. After a couple of setbacks, including the departure of a key editor at the press, I was offered a three-book deal for a new series set in a deep-dish pizza restaurant. The first book, tentatively titled SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is set to come out in Spring 2022.

The advance still doesn’t justify giving up my day job and becoming a full-time writer, but it’s a respectable supplement to our family’s income that might allow us to redo our tacky master bathroom next year.

So am I a writer now? <<shrugs>> Ask me when I’m 50.

Two thumbs up for cozy mysteries

To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.

But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.

I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:

“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”

For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.

I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.

How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery

On October 28th, I’ll be giving a talk at the Blacksburg, VA Public Library. “How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery (and HowHow to Write a Really Terrible Mystery Poster Not To)” will feature tips from my alter ego, Mandy Quagley. Below is a little sneak peek at the kind of colossally unhelpful advice Mandy will give to mystery readers and would-be mystery writers.

There will be lots of audience participation, and lots more terribly hilarious writing samples. Hope to see you there!

GO FOR THE SCOOBY DOO ENDING

Instead of laying cunning clues that lead your reader little by little toward the finale, withhold all information. I mean, this is a mystery, people! Be mysterious. You don’t want to give anything away. So at the end, dump all the information on your reader like a trash collector tipping his load into a fetid landfill.

Take one or more chapters right at the end to reveal in excruciating detail who committed all the murders and how they did it. Ideally, they should do this in one really, really long monologue while your protagonist is tied to a chair or something, but I know this isn’t always possible. A good rule of thumb is that this exposition should recap your entire book.

Here’s a quick example from The Weiner Schnitzel Conundrum by Mandy Quagley:

“Remember that jar of poisoned pickles in the first chapter?” Baron Otto Von Killerstein said, stroking his menacing goatee. “Well, they weren’t poisoned after all!  That character just had a heart attack, you fool! But actually that gave me the idea to poison those pickles in Chapter Five. The ones the other character ate.”

“You mean Count Nebulous Throckmorton died from eating poisoned pickles?” Juliette asked, her blonde curls quivering with fear.

Nine, he’s the one who got bitten by the snake. Don’t you remember? I just told you about the snake I trained specially to be attracted to the scent of mango chutney, and then I gave Count Throckmorton the mango chutney scented cologne?”

“Oh, oui. So it was Professor Leopold von Fingerschweitzen who ate the poisoned pickles.”

Nine! Think about it. Chapter Five? The one with the redhead and the hunchback?”

“Wait, you mean you and Bavaria Bumbersnickle were working together this whole time?” Juliette asked, her ample bosom jiggling with anxiety.

Baron Von Killerstein pulled back the cleverly fitted mask that covered his face. “I am Bavaria Bumbersnickle!”

Clean Indie Reads Interview

I had the pleasure of being interviewed today on the Clean Indie Reads blog, home of “Flinch-Free Fiction.” So what exactly is flinch-free fiction?

While flinch-free books aren’t squeaky-clean Disney-Princess pure in every imaginable way, they are “clean” in the following ways:

They contain no erotica or sexually explicit scenes. There should be nothing that gives a play-by-play description of a sexual encounter or describes nudity in detail. Mild innuendo, reference to sensual or sexual activity that is “off screen” and not graphically portrayed may be used in some books written for adults, but that will show up in the interview with the author on the book’s page.
They contain no graphic violence or gore. There should be nothing that paints a very specific and horrific image in the reader’s mind. Scenes generally described as appropriate for war stories, crime stories, etc. may be present, but that will show up in the interview with the author on the book’s page.
The authors have curtailed offensive language. There should be no use of the “F-word”. Other words commonly considered as swearing and/or racially offensive terms should be used very sparingly, if at all. If such words are present in an effort to mimic speech in times of great duress for a character (and not just peppered in gratuitously), this will be noted in the interview with the author on the book’s page.

Read the full interview

R.P. Dahlke dishes out advice for crafting the perfect author tweet and finding your (fictional) Mr. Right

R.P. Dahlke is the author of the bestselling Dead Red light-hearted cozy mystery series, which features model-turned-pilot Lalla Baines. Dahlke will be at BoucherCon, Long Beach, CA in November 13-16, where she’ll be giving away 40 printed copies of her marketing handbook for authors, Jump Start Your Book Promotions, to attendees of her talk on e-book promotion.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): It’s something of a cliche for a cozy mystery heroine to have relationship problems (love triangles, misunderstandings, going for the wrong type). But your serially-divorced protagonist, Lalla Bains, takes “bad with men” to a new level. Do you believe that becoming a good partner is sometimes a matter of finding the right person (and in Lalla’s case, is her Mr. Right definitely Caleb Stone)? Or do you see more romantic upheavals ahead for Lalla?

IMG_0295.1R.P. Dahlke (RPD): Lalla is a woman who, for all the obvious reasons, doesn’t trust her own judgment when it comes to men, and yet, Caleb Stone proves to her over and over again that he’s not only trustworthy, but he can see beyond her skittish behavior. I hope I’ve answered that question with #4 in the Dead Red Mystery series, A Dead Red Alibi, in which Lalla, feeling she’s been left at the altar, bolts for Arizona with her dad in tow.  Caleb, being the man he is, follows, only to get carjacked and left in the desert. It’s alternately funny, sad, and impressive. I mean, how many men do you know who’d do what he does for the woman he loves? I have a reader who says, “Caleb Stone should be bronzed!” Yep. I think so, too.

MFM: You have an impressive social media presence. I see way too many authors (on Twitter especially) whose whole social media strategy is just to cram their book down everyone’s throats, i.e. @jerkauthor tweets: EVERYBODY BUY MY MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOMETASTIC BOOK RIGHT NOW!!!. And I’m silently thinking: #annoyingauthor #nobodylikesyou. What’s the key to engaging with your (potential) readers on social media without being @jerkauthor?

RPD: Thanks for saying so! Since I interact with authors on a daily basis with DIRT CHEAP MYSTERY READS, my newsletter for mystery lovers, I get an opportunity to see what NOT to do, as well as be cheerleader for all those terrific Indie authors who need the help in promoting. Tweets should be about the book, and I personally insert clips of dialogue or plot points to get the reader’s attention. Then, too, having a free or discounted book is always a good attention getter.

MFM: Speaking of social media, I’ve talked to other authors who describe what a time sink it can be to market your books yourself. Between blogging and tweeting and in-person promos for my books, marketing, for me, has been like having a second, really demanding child. How do you avoid the trap of spending so much time marketing that you forget to write?

RPD: When I wrote my first book, twenty years ago, there was no way to market it other than to get it into a bookstore and then buy a print ad that cost up to $2,000!   There has never been a better time to be an author than right now! Social media along with some very good marketing sites have really leveled the field when it comes to opportunities to promote. Today, an author can promote for free or pay as little as $10.00 to a promo site.

kindleWhen I started selling on Amazon in 2011, I thought that all I had to do was put up a good book with a nice looking cover and sales would happen. And they did–for awhile. But with the glut of new books coming on line every month, authors have to be smart about promoting. I went from spending 10-20% of my sales income (2012-2013) to spending 25% of my income (2014) promoting my own books. Has it paid off? Yes, it has!

I’m also in a “love-fest” with Amazon, simply because Amazon has done the most for promoting Indie authors. For instance, if an author is selling well, Amazon rewards that author with promotion. Indie authors are given the opportunity to give their books away, do short term discounts, and now, with Kindle Unlimited, they have another terrific way to make money.

And yet, I still recommend that authors advertise.  I know I do every single month. I have written a short, concise kindle book on this subject. Jump Start Your Book Promotions is only 99 cents on Amazon/Kindle, and I update it every 5-6 months with new ideas for getting sales and reviews.

MFM: The southwestern setting seems to be encoded in the DNA of your Dead Red Mystery series. I just can’t image Lalla Bains in, say, Peoria, Illinois, and yet in your most recent book, you moved Lalla and her gang from California to Arizona. How important is the setting to you? 

RPD: I believe in writing about what I know. It’s safer that way!

I was raised in the central valley of California, and ran my dad’s crop dusting business for a couple of years, so that was where I set my first three dead red books. But after my son died in a work related airplane accident in 2005, I knew that after my third book, A Dead Red Oleander, that I would have to start a new series. Then something interesting happened.  After going over all the reviews for these books, I realized that what readers liked the most about the Dead Red series, was not the flying, or crop dusting, but the mysteries, and most importantly, the dynamics of Lalla and her family.  So, with A Dead Red Alibi (and coming in 2015-A Dead Red Miracle) I’ve moved Lalla and the gang to Wishbone, Arizona–close to where I and my boxedsetcover2 SMALLhusband now reside after spending four years sailing in Mexico.

Links for R.P. Dahlke:

“I owe my writing career to my dogs,” and other secrets of publishing success. Interview with C.A. Newsome.

C. A. (Carol Ann) Newsome writes the Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries, a series of funny, romantic suspense/mystery novels which are inspired by and centered around her mornings at the Mount Airy Dog Park with her trio of rescue dogs. She is also an artist with an M.F.A. from the University of Cincinnati, and you’ll see portraits of some of her favorite four-footed friends on the covers of her books. Her other interests include astrology, raw food, and all forms of psychic phenomena. She likes to sing to her dogs. The dogs are the only ones who like to listen.

 

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): There’s an old showbiz adage, “Never work with children or animals,” and yet you’ve chosen to base much of your writing career on dogs, namely your Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries. Any regrets? I suppose the clean up and care of imaginary dogs is probably easier

C.A. Newsome (CAN): I owe my writing career (and more) to my dogs and my dog park friends, so no regrets. The nice thing about writing about animals is that they never complain about the way you portray them in books. When I was an artist, I always painted from real life or photographs. I’m like that in my writing as well. My plots are extrapolations inspired by the people, places, and dogs I encounter in daily life.

Another bonus, I think it’s easier to gain a foothold in the market if you publish in a niche category. There just aren’t that many dog mysteries out there, so dog lovers are more likely to take a chance on an indie author.

It’s a double-edged sword, though. My current concern is not getting ghetto-ised as a “dog author.” There’s a lot in the books to appeal to people beyond the furred ones.

MFM: My own second novel, A Death in Duck, features a Doberman. I tried to make him as realistically “dog like” as possible, because I have a serious aversion to anthropomorphic pets solving crimes (although I do make an exception for Scooby Doo, obviously). Where do you stand on this divisive, hot button issue–the cozy mystery equivalent of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

CAN: I loved Spencer Quinn’s Dog On It Mysteries, but I have no desire to write the internal life of a dog. Not that I don’t think animals are smart enough. My experiences with animal communicators has convinced me that dogs are more aware than we give them credit for. But they use their brains to attend to doggie priorities. They sniff out dog treats and dead animals, not murderers.

My fictional dogs act like real dogs. They eat dirt. They steal remotes. They shed. They eat your pizza when you aren’t looking.

MFM: Several of your reviews use words like “easy read” and “light mystery” to describe your books. How do you feel about your books being described that way? Author Julie Anne Lindsey suggested that those of us who write funny cozies should band together under the hashtag #TeamFluff

CAN: Call me light, call me easy, Just don’t call me silly.

I want my books to be easy to read. I want people to forget they’re reading and get lost in my stories. That, to me, is the sign of good writing. And I think we need to take what we do seriously. What we do has proven therapeutic value. We give people a break from their daily grind. We help them shift their mood and their attitude. We make them laugh at the foibles of life. We leave them refreshed and in a positive frame of mind.

MFM: You made the decision to “permafree” the first book in your series, A Shot in the Bark on Amazon, which means that even though it’s been downloaded eleventy gajillion times (exact total as of today), you get zero dollars in royalties from it. How did you decide that the permafree risk was worth taking?

CAN: I’m blessed in my online writer friends. We share our experiences across all phases of our work, from writer’s block to marketing. I was able to see pre and post perma-free sales of other book series, so I didn’t feel like I was taking a risk. Perma-free for first in a series works as one part of a marketing strategy, IF the book is engaging enough to make readers want more.

One of my author associates is Russell Blake (who co-authored the latest Clive Cussler). He’s very open about everything he does to create his success. His blog is http://russellblake.com It’s a great resource for indies.

MFM: I’ve read a lot of blogs with writing advice, including my own(!), but your blog advice for writers is genuinely one of my favorites. I’ll just pick out a couple stellar quotes:

“Most people can knock out 500 words in the time they waste watching a Star Trek rerun.”

“Somebody had to invent Jane Austen with Zombies.”

“While Barbie might be a paleontologist one day and Supergirl the next, your characters may not.”

One thing I think you’re missing, though, is the importance of getting honest feedback from talented writers and/or insightful readers. Now that the Holy Grail of becoming a published author is more attainable than ever before, getting somebody other than your mom to read your stuff is essential for knowing if your stuff is awesome or if it sucks like a medieval leech doctor. Unless your mom is my mom, and then you’ll get PLENTY of “constructive criticism” and “feedback” on everything you endeavor to do. Hmm… I realize that this has become more of a therapy session for me than a question for you, so, I’ll just prompt you in the style of Mike Myers’s Linda Richman character from SNL: The importance of honest feedback for newbie writers. Discuss…

CAN: Thank you for the lovely compliment! I didn’t mention feedback in that particular post because I wrote it for someone who was scribbling and aspiring, but not at the point where feedback would be beneficial. If  you dig further into my archives, you’ll find How to be a Better Beta Reader: http://canewsome.com/2013/10/05/how-to-be-a-better-beta-reader/

I absolutely believe in getting feedback for two reasons. 1) If you plan to publish, you are developing a product as much as you are expressing yourself, and you damn well better have an idea how people are responding to your stuff. 2) Reading a book is usually a one time experience. You cannot experience your own book the way a first time reader does unless you ditch your manuscript and run across it ten years later. Which I don’t advise.

However, for feedback to be useful, you must first be grounded in your own vision.

I learned in art school that when another artist critiques your work, they are  most likely going to tell you how they would do it. So we would have some hot-shot visiting artist come in, and they would tell me what they liked about my work and thought I should do, and it would be the exact opposite of what another hot-shot artist told me the week before. If you don’t want your work to wind up looking like a copy of your favorite teacher, you need to start by pleasing yourself.

You don’t look at your significant other and ask, “Is this how I like my hamburger?” You just know that it tastes good to you and hopefully you don’t care what anyone else thinks about the sardines and marshmallows you put on it.

When I taught drawing, one of my mantras was “Being an artist means having an opinion.” You have to be able to tap into your gut when you look at your work and decide what you want and how you want it.

So I’d get a talented kid who was looking to me to tell them whether something was good, or if they were going about it the right way, and I’d say, “What do you think?” And since they were used to doing what their teacher said and earning gold stars, that would drive them crazy. But the arts are the one place where you can do exactly what your teacher says and end up with an epic fail.

You also need to get feedback from people who like the sort of thing you’re writing. One of my first betas loves John Grisham, and kept suggesting his books to me. I finally picked one up and discovered that the bits she loved, bored me to death. We are both relieved that she no longer reads for me.

Right now, I’m preparing to send my fourth novel, Sneak Thief, out to more than a dozen beta readers solicited through my mailing list. In this installment of Lia and Peter’s story, Lia meets a new BFF, Desiree, who is being stalked by an anonymous admirer. When Desiree turns up dead, Lia is convinced the detectives assigned to the case are on the wrong track and starts snooping. Sneak Thief refers to Desiree’s beagle, Julia, who creates havoc with her larceny.

There’s no shame in writing fluff! Interview with bestselling cozy author Julie Anne Lindsey

Julie Anne Lindsay, author of the fabulous Patience Price mystery series, muses on feminism, the importance of community and why writing is fun (in a never-ending torture kind of way). She also explains why she won’t be stabbing you with a shrimp fork any time soon. … Continue reading There’s no shame in writing fluff! Interview with bestselling cozy author Julie Anne Lindsey