How It All Began

I’ve never quite figured out why some of us become writers. Oh, I don’t mean writing a message on Facebook, twittering a tweet, or even writing a blog. I’m talking about that strange compulsion that comes over some of us to write a novel. To look at a blank page and know you have to fill it with words about what happened to someone who doesn’t exist in circumstances that never happened. You have a story to tell.

Dying For A Change was my first novel. I’d had a few short pieces published,  so finally got up the courage to do what I always wanted to do. Write a mystery novel. Only, where to start? When I was in school, creative writing was not on any class list I ever found. Creative anything wasn’t. You were supposed to learn what was put in front of you and question nothing, not even why you couldn’t understand algabra. The art of putting words on paper to make a story was foreign to me. Luckily, I didn’t even realize back then that it was an art. If I had, I might not have blindly tried it.

I had been to a couple of writing seminars at the local college and one universal piece of advice was “write what you know.” So, as I sat up in bed with a legal pad on my lap and a mug of coffee beside me, I pondered. What did I know about? Real estate. Horses. Kids. I knew a lot about kids. Divorce. Starting over. I had chosen to do that in a small town on California’s central coast. A town that was about to get a Wal Mart, a fact that did not make everyone happy. I knew about that. I thought about conflict and knew I had a plot.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. I have never, to this day, found a dead body in any of the houses I’ve shown. I’ve never seen anyone who has been shot. I’ve never had an Aunt Mary. Those things I had to make up. Actually, I had to make it all up. Once I had the outline for my main character and the primary conflict that would run through the story,  it started to unfold, admittedly in fits and starts, but unfold it did and was it ever fun.

I worked on that book until my eyes crossed. The first several versions were not what I wanted, only I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Several people helped me, made suggestions, and I went back to school. UCLA has extension classes that they often hold as week-end seminars and I was more than willing to make the drive to LA. I learned, among other things, that writing is a craft and you have to  learn the basics. Then I wrote it again.

Eventually, it was a finalist in St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, got published by another company but got published, and got really great reviews. Library Journal and Publishers Weekly both loved it.

So, now I’m hooked. I love writing these books. Not only has Ellen grown and changed through the four books I have written about her, but so have I. Murder Half-Baked is the fourth Ellen mystery, and while she’s had a lot of adventures through those books, found a lot of bodies, solved a lot of mysteries and even sold a little real estate, in Half-Baked, she gets to do something she’s been slowly moving toward. Ellen gets married again.

Dying For A Change is back. It is out on Kindle and Nook, where you can find all of the Ellen books, and from now until the end of November, you can buy the first one for .99. Meet Ellen, and follow all of her adventures, including her wedding which didn’t come about smoothly.. I hope you have as much fun reading about them as I have had writing them.

In Defense of Grammar

Years ago, before any of my novels or articles were published, I decided that if I was going to get serious about writing I needed a writing class. The instructor wrote children’s books. Past middle age, her long gray hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She was given to smock tops, tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and she was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author should look like, maybe any author. I’ve learned a lot since then.

She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea how to explain how an author constructed a story, built characters, and incorporated tension. Those things I would learn much later.

What she did do was emphasize the importance of story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He brushed away the idea of story entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct. No one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

It took me awhile to realize they were both right.

I grew up in Catholic schools, back in the days when nuns wearing habits, who were addicted to diagramming sentences, staffed them. Maybe that’s why I hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.

It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a different meaning to a sentence than the one you intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and the story stops while the reader tries to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting that the reader puts it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is on the Internet. Today, anyone can comment on anything and post it for the world to see. Those comments are often vitriolic, lambasting everything and everybody. The government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or merely their neighbor who lets her kids dare to play on the sidewalk, they all get a liberal dose of abuse. The Internet is awash in comments, posted by people who seem to take pride in the fact that their tweet has turned into a squawk. When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to a conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St. Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off. I wonder, where were these people’s sixth grade teachers? Or are they so intent on posting their pearls of wisdom they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they’ve missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know where the delete button is or some of their postings would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to re-read, and then re-write, what they have written. Does it make sense? Do the words flow together to present the thought accurately, and is the sentence a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end? If you make a point important to you, shouldn’t you take the time to express it in a way that makes sense? More people will read your comments on Facebook or Twitter than will ever read a novel, a scary thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “writer,” just someone who wishes to make an occasional comment. You still need to go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar and Delete is under your right hand’s little finger.

Those Pesky Dead Bodies

This last weekend I attended the Writers’ Police Academy. It was awesome. It had an impressive list of classes and an equally impressive array of instructors. My first class included walking through the house used to teach cadets how to navigate through billowing smoke. There was no smoke but the smell remained and it was dark. Very dark. My respect for firemen rose about 100%. We learned how to shake down a cell for contraband—it turns out prisoners can be very creative—then how a police dog is trained. After working, she lay at her handlers’ feet, contentedly letting us all pet her while she bit a rubber chew toy instead of an arm.

We watched EMTs roar up and save a gunshot victim’s life. They made the scene was so real that for a moment I thought the victim had actually been shot. We learned about blood spatter patterns and how hard it is to get rid of blood from a murder scene. They even dug a shallow grave in a grove of trees, filled with an obliging dummy and lots of bugs and bad smells. We had a vivid lecture on how hard it is to dispose of a dead body and why cemeteries don’t use shallow graves.

Every mystery/thriller writer knows that the body is always a problem. You can leave it in plain sight, in the dining room where someone is sure to find it quickly, or you can hide it in the woods, where it may take a while before it’s found. That’s where the information we gleaned from this class comes in handy. Most murderers use a shallow grave because they don’t want to put in the hours, or work, it takes to dig a deeper one. After all, the longer you are out there digging, the better the chance someone may notice. However, they also want the evidence to disappear. A totally decayed body is much harder to identify, or so most folks think. But, the decaying process is messy, smelly and takes a while. Ergo, lime.I perked up when he mentioned that, as I’d had some personal experience with it.

Years ago, lime was used a lot in mysteries. So when a neighbor came over one day and complained that a mouse had managed to wedge itself behind her wall board and die, and that the smell was about to drive them into a motel, I suggested pouring lime down the wall. Worked beautifully on corpses in the mysteries I’d read. The only way to do it was to remove the light switch plate and pour a large quantity down the opening so that we’d have a better chance of covering the body. We got rid of the mouse and the smell all right, but we also took out all of the wiring on that wall of the house. I knew what lime did to mice and wires, and was interested in what it might do to bodies. Turns out it’s not nearly as effective, or as quick as it was with the mouse. It is effective at keeping the noxious odors from seeping up to give away the location of the body, but burying it wrapped in heavy plastic is better. It’s bugs and worms that assist in the decaying of a body. If it’s wrapped in plastic, they can’t get to it. However, you’d better bring a piece of plywood to put over the body because all that loose dirt is going to settle. A dead giveaway that something is buried there.

Interesting as all of this has been, I think I’ve given up on shallow graves. After all, I write cozies. It somehow seems more fitting, and a lot tidier, to stick with Miss Scarlet with the pistol in the study.