When people learn that I am a writer, they ask me some interesting questions…mostly about where my characters come from. My usual answer is: They just come to me. It’s an honest answer and one I have replied with many times. By searching pictures and photos, I choose the ones that appear as I would see my characters in reality.
Once a cast is compiled, I step aside and allow them free will. Oh, I have a general idea of the plot or of what will occur in the novel, but my characters, being as human as they can be, are given free rein to say and do what they please. So, for example, when one of them commits murder, I see it as a decision he made.
Sometimes characters will take a wrong turn and bump into a wall…perhaps better known as writer’s block. Here, too, I don’t intervene or pry them free, but rather wait it out until they have found an acceptable solution. My characters are not marionettes where I pull the strings and know ahead of time the direction they will take.
So, too, when my characters speak, the dialogue comes from them with their own unique jargon, voice, and tone. I am merely the scribe, hoping to catch their every word.
Interestingly, I was reading about Agatha Christie. In the foreword of her mystery novel Crooked House, she says, “I don’t know what put the Leonides family into my head—they just came….I feel that I myself was only their scribe.” Maybe it’s in the spirit of Halloween or call it channeling that Christie in 1949 chose the very words I use today to describe myself: a scribe.
But what gave me a slight chill as I worked on the fourth novel of my Dana Greer Mystery Series, Christie named one of her characters Sophia, and I, too, have a character by this name.
Add to that, in Crooked House, Christie has a child character patterned after Rhoda Penmark in the 1950s novel the Bad Seed. In the novel I am presently working on, I have also tried to pattern a child after Rhoda, whose behavior is quite unexplainable other than to say, “She is a bad seed.”
Last night, I ordered and started reading Christie’s book. I never gave much thought to channeling, but I must admit I had a weird feeling…as if Agatha and I were on the same page.
Not all losses are necessarily bad things.
At the recent Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, the second book in my Dana Greer Mystery Series, Unholy Secrets, was nominated for the Silver Falchion Award. When the drum roll finished, the envelope was opened, and the winner announced, I was ready to clap for the winner, which I did.
When I asked myself why I felt happy for the winner and not discouraged with being the loser, I had plenty of answers.
Two years ago, I had attended the same conference. I was in the process of doing final revisions for my first novel. I had no books to sign or sell, and I had not volunteered to teach on any of the conference panels.
Two years later…today… I feel like a winner. I am presently at work on novel #4, Whispering Remorse, which takes place during a brutal winter storm at a retreat house, high in the Rockies. At the Killer Nashville Conference this year, I was able to sign the first two books in my series, Unholy Secrets and Silent Betrayal, and I taught on two panels: Plot Twists and Writing Characters a Reader Cannot Forget. And only days after my third book came out, I got a five-star review on Amazon!
I may not have won an award yet, but in my mind, I feel like a winner!
It got me thinking. Could the same be said for books? In particular, could this term apply to books in a series, as well?
Let’s see what is said about a first-born child. It is thought that a first-born is a leader, a perfectionist, and seeker of approval.
When I consider the first book in the Dana Greer, PI Mystery Series – Unholy Secrets – I can say with all certainty that the protagonist is all three of these. After a messy separation from her husband, resulting in a case gone cold, Dana chooses to move to a new location on an island off the coast of Maine, Cape Peril. She begins to work directly under the auspices of the Catholic Church, seeking to do her best to earn a reputation for her work. She goes about analyzing each clue to a T and seeks the advice and guidance of Sergeant Logan as she moves closer to solving the case of murdered schoolgirl Bernadette Godfrey.
Middle children tend to be more social and seek their approval from friends.
In book two – Silent Betrayal – the reader finds a social Dana Greer. When she realizes that the sergeant in the small town of Punkerton, Texas is inept, she confides with Ellie Banks, with whom she resides. Not only does Ellie provides scrumptious deserts for Dana, but the woman attempts to solve clues with Dana and introduces her to an important secondary character, Shirley Mitford. Additionally, Dana receives the attention of a handsome attorney, Howard Rhodes, who convinces her to go on a date and to travel to California in an attempt to seek out more information relative to the case of murdered prison inmate Douglas Clifford.
The baby of the family tends to be more of a risk taker.
Bitter Wrath, the third book in the Dana Greer, PI Mystery Series, certainly takes some exciting risks. One, of which, is living with an order of nuns in the Carmelite Cloistered Convent, where things are far from what one might expect for a convent. The Red Barn Tavern provides a subplot wherein Dana spies on the very customers who have no moral right to be there!
Of course, there are many variables that go into assigning traits to children, not solely dependent on the order in which they are born. So, too, with the analysis of my series, this blog was a fun attempt to describe my protagonist, Dana Greer, who, as always, will keep solving cases no matter how many books are born into the series.
After my last book signing, I realized that meeting my readers is similar to a live performance, where fans come backstage for autographs and, more importantly, to speak with the actress. It’s a chance to mingle, to answer questions, and to listen to their thoughts.
Guess I never thought of it this way before. Writing is such a solitary profession. I usually sit alone in front of my computer and let my characters take the lead. Writing a novel, in many ways, is no different than reading a good book. It is an opportunity to disassociate from the everyday activities around one’s self. It is a chance to move to new locations, meet new faces, learn about other’s lives, and sometimes as in murder mysteries, to solve problems and even crimes.
I often sign my books saying, “I write for you, my reader.” Years ago, when I finally realized this concept, it gave writing not only an audience but also a purpose. Prior to that, the little mind gremlins would question me as to why I spent such significant time writing if no one was to see my work, if no one cared, as I put manuscript after manuscript in a drawer never to be seen again.
Book signings have taught me otherwise. My audience consists of my readers; my purpose is to entertain by taking my readers away from the mundane of life to become part of different settings, to meet new people, and to help my investigator solve the murder.
In return, I have the pleasure of meeting my readers, the ones who love murder mysteries, a series, a flashback to the 1950s.
Whether my books provide a good summer read as one of my readers told me at my last signing or just an opportunity to get lost for an hour or two before bed, I thank each and every one of you for providing me a purpose for writing. As John Steinbeck said, “I nearly always write just as I nearly always breathe.” I write for you, my reader!
Since I’ve been writing my murder mysteries, which take place in the 1950s, it has required some research of that era.
If you’re one of the lucky ones to be part of the Baby Boomers, perhaps, you will feel as if you are walking down memory lane when you read the Dana Greer, PI Mystery Series.
When Dana finds herself on Cape Peril, Maine, on a freezing winter day, she wishes she had purchased that coat from the Penney’s catalog…the cashmere one with the mutton fur collar, but eleven dollars seemed too much!
Or, when Opal, the Tarot card reader, introduces herself to Dana, she’s wearing a flowered housedress…not a term you hear people using today but a popular style for women of the day.
While solving the murder of a young school girl, Dana stays in a beautiful Victorian home. Its kitchen is furnished with a chrome table and chairs upholstered in bright, yellow vinyl, truly a décor of the 50s.
Those were the days when leaving a ten-cent tip for a toast and egg breakfast was considered more than adequate, and a five-and-ten store, referred to as a “dime store” was a common sight on the main street in town.
It was a time when telegrams were a common way to communicate important information over the miles, and people did handwork, such as crocheting fancy edges on pillowcases, making doilies for every table, and embroidering designs on linens.
Segregation was all part of the era, and it was not uncommon to find separate water fountains for the black and white folk. The South harbored the Ku Klux Klan, who were known for their ruthless, intolerant ways.
For humor, people were reading comic books, such as Casper the Ghost or Little Lulu. For the latest gossip, people were reading Motion Picture, Modern Screen, or Movie Stars or getting the latest updates from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
And oh for the Hollywood stars of the times whose names were household words: Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn….
Writing mystery novels set in the 50s, such as Unholy Secrets or Silent Betrayal, as well as reading them truly is a walk down memory lane.
Don’t we all love nostalgia, thinking of the good ol’ days when we were kids no matter what era you grew-up in? The 1950s are, to some, a remembrance of a better time, an easier lifestyle.
A gallon of gas cost 18 cents, a loaf of bread 30 cents, and a cup of coffee 5-10 cents! And a United States average income was merely $4,237.
There were no computers, only typewriters, and extra copies were made with sheets of carbon paper. There were no cell phones, and most families could only afford a home telephone with a party line.
Colored TVs were made by attaching a sheet of three-colored plastic to the screen.
Typical children’s toys were potato heads, Tiny Tear dolls, and green Army men.
Most school children walked to school as there were no school buses or carpools. Instead of backpacks, children carried their supplies in school bags.
World War II was over and the Great Depression had passed. Because people knew what bad times were like, they were more cautious with spending, more hard-working to support their lifestyles. Conservatism was more a theme of life than an idea.
My Dana Greer Mystery Series takes place in this exact timeframe. Dana is a traveling investigator, one of the only women of her time to pursue this career; whereas, most women her age stayed at home and raised their families. What better way to travel than by the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe Railroad.
Dana goes wherever there is a murder involving any aspect of the Catholic Church. This is the Church Pre-Vatican II, where children memorized their catechisms, sang in Latin, and treasured their Missals at daily Mass.
The 50s were a time of racial segregation; gender biases; and religious intolerance, such as that shown by the Ku Klux Klan.
The 50s were a time of sexual orthodoxy where going steady was considered a sin by the Church, marriage was a life-time commitment, and having a child out of wedlock was shunned.
This was a time long before DNA and data-based offenders, which made solving a crime that much more difficult.
I chose the 50s as the perfect of times for a murder-mystery series.
Where Do Ideas Come From?
If you’re like me, I’m always interested in learning where author’s ideas come from. The plot for my soon-to-be-released second novel Silent Betrayal came from an experience I had while an undergraduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit.
It was during a criminology course that my fellow students and I visited a boys’ prison. Although I can no longer remember the name of the place or if it still exists, I do remember it well. Young boys, no more than six- or seven-years of age lined single file with their arms crossed behind their backs as they marched through the corridors.
Then, and now for that matter, I still wonder what crimes these children could possibly have committed. Their faces cleanly scrubbed, their cheeks rosy, they appeared more like innocent cherubs than convicted prisoners.
Hence, from this memory, came the idea for my book. What if a young boy, convicted of a horrendous crime, was found murdered in his cell?
Dana Greer, P.I. is called onto the case by the Archbishop of Dallas. Her efforts to solve the young boy’s murder are thwarted at every turn by the corruption, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness of the town of Punkerton, Texas. Silent Betrayal takes you behind the damp, dark walls of a boy’s prison run by an order of Catholic monks, where no one is quite who they appear to be.
Coming soon…Silent Betrayal
Oftentimes, readers like to ask authors questions about their book, such as, “Where do you get your ideas?” Lee Murray, award-winning New Zealand author, asked me the following questions about my debut novel Unholy Secrets:
Tell us briefly about Unholy Secrets. What inspired it?
Unholy Secrets actually was inspired by an actual event that occurred when I was a child. A second-grade student from my elementary school was kidnapped and murdered, and the story stayed with me. It was the first time I became aware of evil in the world. I was so frightened I had my mother walk me to school every day until I was in sixth grade!
Your heroine, Dana Greer, is a police investigator with a former female mentor. A Catholic coming to grips with her recent divorce, and a woman with her own childhood secrets, she is nevertheless, portrayed as independent, intelligent, and likeable, even while navigating a male-dominated environment in 1950s society. So, in your view, is Unholy Secrets a feminist novel?
I never set out to create Dana Greer as a feminist but, rather, I wanted the plot to be told from a woman’s perspective…a woman’s voice. Then, the idea occurred to me that in 1950, she really was a woman ahead of her time. I wanted to make her edgy, confident, and strong yet at the same time to question how life might have played out differently had she chosen the typical housewife role of the 50s.
If you were to shelve Unholy Secrets in the bookstore, would you put it under cozy mystery or gritty police procedural, or some other genre?
I would place Unholy Secrets under the genre of crime detective.
Tell us about the literary references in the story: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, and Robert Frost’s poetry, and their significance to the story. How have these literary works influenced your work?
I researched Catholic books written in the 50s and came upon Robinson’s novel the Cardinal. Since my characters “speak to me,” Dana chose to read it. As for Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Dana so often could relate to the “many miles” she had to go in order to finally solve the crime.
The story is set in Cape Peril, an imaginary island off the coast of Maine. What was your inspiration for this setting, and why did you feel compelled to create a your own, rather than base the story in a real place?
Yes, Cape Peril is an imaginary island off the coast of Maine. I visited Maine once and, at one time, lived in Massachusetts, near Salem. There’s something definitely foreboding about islands…their isolation, their separateness from the mainland. As for Maine, I liked the idea of the harsh winters…I guess, the motif of coldness.
The historic aspect of the story reminds me a little of the UK’s George Gently TV series. If there were a film version of the Dana Greer mysteries, what modern-day actress would you like to see playing the heroine and why?
Of course, I’d be thrilled to see Unholy Secrets become a film. I would choose the French actress Marion Cotillard for the lead role. There’s something about the role she played in “Allied” with Brad Pitt that made me a fan. She would need a blond wig, however.
In Unholy Secrets, some of the female characters, such as Carmelina Artinelli while set up as villains, could also be seen as victims. Would you agree?
I would definitely agree with this statement. At times, the reader will find her heartless, ruthless and at other time, she evokes sympathy.
Unholy Secrets, at its core, deals with the horror of the death of a child. I see from the excerpt included at the end of the book that the next mystery, Silent Betrayal, releasing in October of this year, also involves the loss of a child. Why this morbid fascination with horrors inflicted on children?
I hope my readers won’t see the loss of a child in my books as a morbid fascination. As mentioned, Unholy Secrets was loosely based on an actual event from my own childhood. There is something to be said about children who lack a knowledge of evil in much the same way that I as a child, was abruptly forced to face the harsh reality of a sinful world. Suddenly, fear was introduced into my life. As for future books in the series, there will be three key elements: Dana will travel to wherever there is a crime involving a child and the Catholic Church. Also, the overall theme will be that even the godly can fall into the depths of sin. As for the Church, it is part of my fiber, my love. Even in the face of evil, it has withstood the test of time.
And finally, do you have a favorite spindled porch somewhere? (don’t worry if you don’t have one – we can leave this question out).
Interesting question! I hadn’t thought about it, but yes, the house I grew-up in was not a Victorian, but it did have a spindled porch!
When I signed a book contract about two and a half years ago, I thought, and rightly so, that I had stepped into the glamourous lights of publishing. Like an actress in New York or a movie star in Hollywood, my day had finally come to put my star in the Walk of Fame. Now true, I had signed with a small publisher, but the benefits of the contract made it financially better than any of the big three houses.
All of the excitement, the glory, and the anticipation were to come crashing down, however, when the red flags of impending doom surfaced.
First, the editor-in-chief who had been the original person to like and accept my manuscript left the house. Now, although this is not all that uncommon, the reason behind the departure revolved around some not-so-nice interpersonal reasons at the press.
Secondly, not all editors are created equal. Assigned to a woman who provided no plan of action and, worse yet, no means of contact, caused weeks to whittle by with no communication and no forward movement on the book.
After the manuscript was edited, which basically became a line edit rather than a content one, I reassured myself that just maybe the manuscript needed no more major revisions.
Every time I would ask where the manuscript stood in terms of publication dates, I was given red flag number four: “We want to put out the best work possible for our authors and will not go to publication until everything is the best it can be.” Although not sure exactly what this meant, I heard the laments over and over for months.
With my patience waning and finding myself two years into the contract, I asked to be given a date. Red flag number five came as a major surprise: the book would be on Amazon in two weeks, but only if I signed a written agreement to pass on any final proofs of the book. As a side note, I learned that this is something never to do. No matter how perfect the manuscript might appear in its final revision, there is always the possibility of spacing errors, chapter and page heading errors, etc. at the last minute. Pdf copies should always be proofed and more than once!
From there, red flags flew wildly. The rush to get cover art for the book became nothing merely than a clipart. Oh, and the photos I had in my book would have to be removed as there was not time to get copyright authorization.
The staff who had originally been respectful turned from Jekyll to Hyde. Suddenly the publication of my book became the press’s rush to get the book out in their determined time frame of two weeks! I became the source of the stress and pressure in the hurriedness to publish. But, I might add, I never asked for the this deadline.
One of my published writer friends mentioned getting previews on the book before the book went “live” on Amazon. In less than two weeks, who could I possibly expect to read the pdf of my book and write a review? No one.
Of course with this being my debut novel, I had no idea what pre-readers even were.
One morning, a few days before I was to be a published novelist, an email popped in my box, saying that due to my lack of faith in the press, they were terminating my contract.
Almost two and a half years later, many red flags along the way, and I’m finally happy to say my mystery novel will be coming out next month…thanks to self-publishing.
Think it’s almost time to polish my star!
There are many reasons for celebration: to announce a graduation, an engagement, a wedding, a new baby. . . . Then, there are the times to cheer when dreams come true: a sailor returns from deployment, a sick relative recovers, a job becomes available. . . . The latter may not have a Hallmark card to send, yet the occasions are special and memorable.
On July 20, I had reason to shout my joy to the world – a dream comes true kind of day. After having written six novels and having been fortunate enough to have at least a dozen of my short stories published, I received a book contract for my seventh novel! No, there are no specific greeting cards for such a dream; in fact, I’m not even sure someone won’t wake me up and tell me it was just that, only a dream. I’m not even sure quite how I should feel or act. Am I an official writer now called author? Should I be practicing my signature for upcoming book signings? Is it safe to start on book two in the series? For now at least, I prefer to call July 20 one of the happiest days of my life. And, as for when the book finally comes out sometime in 2016, well, I hope to have another one of those dream comes true kind of days!