Crossword Cozies

I’m cogitating over a new cozy mystery series set in the world of crossword puzzles so I’ve started learning how to make them.

Guess what?

It’s haaaard!

I complete the easy King crossword and the progressively harder NYT puzzle printed every day in the Denver Post. Well, not every day. I haven’t attempted the Sunday NYT and I cheat my way through the one on Saturday.

I’m pretty good at solving the puzzles, so I assumed (yeah, I know) that it wouldn’t be a huge leap to flip it and start creating them.

I begin with a 15×15 blank grid. There are rules you have to abide by. You can only have a maximum of 38 black squares and a maximum of 78 words, only 20 of which can be 3-letter words.

Crossword puzzles must have rotational symmetry, meaning that you can turn the page upside down and the puzzle grid looks exactly the same. Luckily, the software takes care of this chore for me. So if I put a black space in the top row, the fourth from the left, there will also be one in the bottom row the fourth from the right.

The “entries” are the words in the puzzle. The “slots” are where those words go. The “clues” are the hints you give so the solvers can put the right entries into the right slots.

Puzzles usually have themes, whether you see them or not, and they also need symmetry. Say my theme is “Murder.” There are a lot of words for murder: slaughter, assassinate, run through, decapitate, asphyxiate, disembowel, exterminate, pump full of lead. But I can’t use them all. First, because that’s too many and I wouldn’t be able to find entries for the rest of the grid. But also because of symmetry.

“Slaughter” has 9 letters, “pump full of lead” has 14, “assassinate” and “exterminate” both have 11 and the rest all have 10.

Right off the bat I know I can’t use “slaughter” because it has no corresponding length word. You must have a black square after each of your theme words, so here’s what would happen if I tried to pair these two.

And I can’t use “pump full of lead” because it has 14 letters, problematic in a 15×15 grid.

Seems okay …. until you add the black space at the end. No symmetry!

So I’ll choose assassinate, exterminate, run through, and disembowel as my theme words.

That’s the beginning of my puzzle. And my headache. Next I have to start placing more black squares to break up long slots and to make the puzzle look pretty. Then comes the filling of the grid, which takes a lot of trial and error. Mostly error for me. I’ll talk about that more when I get better at it. When you have real words in all the slots, then you write the clues. Punnier, more obscure clues make for a more difficult puzzle, but I don’t know how to gauge the difficulty level yet.

Did I mention this was haaaaard??

How ’bout you? Do you like to solve crossword puzzles? Would you read a mystery series set in the world of puzzling? What clever name would you bestow upon said crossword series?

I’m Hearing Voices

I rarely re-read books.

The exceptions are

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… because I love her with my whole heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… because The SantaLand Diaries is pretty close to perfect writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… because I read this book as a young teenager and it cast a spell on me that appears to be unbreakable.

And now I can add

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

to my list.

I read it when it came out in 2017 and a member of my book club chose it for our December 2018 read. The second time through I was able to savor it, letting the prose weave through my thoughts, finding new nooks and crannies to settle in.

Eleanor Oliphant gives new meaning to the term “socially awkward.” She’s a mulligan stew of hilarity, practicality, and heartbreak … and so much more.

I love the story, but it’s on my list to re-read because of a couple of things the author, Gail Honeyman, does really well.

The first thing is backstory. I won’t give anything away, but Eleanor has a secret. Honeyman dribbles just the right amount of information the reader needs at just the right time. ‘Nuff said about that, lest I spoil it. You’ll see when you read it.

But the second thing the author does is much more difficult. And that is capturing Eleanor’s voice.

Talking about voice in writing can be nebulous. Like art or pornography, you can’t define it precisely, but you know it when you see it.

Voice has different levels and different meanings.

First, there’s the writer’s voice. The writing of Ernest Hemingway doesn’t sound anything like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Janet Evanovich doesn’t sound anything like John Grisham. Dr Seuss doesn’t sound anything like Emily Dickinson.

Each author chooses certain words and rhythms to their writings. I bet you can search the depth and breadth of Fitzgerald’s works and never find him describing anyone as a “mulligan stew.” Nor will I ever write anything resembling, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I use a lot of sentence fragments when I write, anathema to some. Hemingway rarely varies his sentence pattern, anathema to me. But that’s an entirely different blog post. Fight me later.

Second, there’s the actual voice of the character. Some people have foreign or regional accents. Some drop the G at the end of a word. Some speak fast, some s l o w. Some have a squeaky soprano, some a basso profundo. Eleanor Oliphant is Scottish and that creeps in every so often. The first time I heard The SantaLand Diaries was on NPR, read by the author, David Sedaris. He has a very distinctive voice and I haven’t read anything of his since without hearing his words in his voice.

Then, the heart of a character, who they are. And that is shown by everything they say, how they say it, what they don’t say.

This is the voice that Gail Honeyman excels at with Eleanor Oliphant.

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t take long to get a sense of Eleanor, does it? While it might be infuriating to hang out with her as a real person, I love spending time with fictional Eleanor.

I could listen to her voice for hours.

What are some other voices that have stuck with you over the years?

I Need Your Opinion

I need your opinion.

pre-orders available now – just click the beautiful cover!

I’m gearing up for the release of FOUL PLAY ON WORDS in April 2019 but I’m not sure what kind of publicity events I should do. They’re all fun for me, but a girl only has so much time!

What kind of book events do you like?

  • Launch parties
  • Readings
  • Panel presentations at libraries or bookstores
  • Facebook parties
  • None of the above
  • Something else?

Tell you what … if you comment on this post and tell me what kind of events you like and what you like to hear authors talk about, when I get my Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, I’ll pick a lucky commenter (maybe more) to get a copy hot off the press!

Also …. I’m contemplating a southern California book tour, maybe in June. If I was in the vicinity of The Book Carnival in Orange, would you come see me?

Comment below! And thanks … you’re the BEST!

 

Resiliency

I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly resilient person. I mean, it’s not one of the top ten words I’d use in one of those job interview questions, “describe your strengths.”

To me, resiliency means rolling with the punches, landing on your feet, changing gears when necessary.

But I like order. Outlines. Lists. Calendars. Plans. Itineraries. Knowing, for example, on Sunday — tomorrow — I’m going to be on my way to Bucharest to begin our 26-day Danube River cruise, bracketed with a few days at the beginning in Transylvania and a few days in Amsterdam at the end.

Except that on Thursday — two days ago — they cancelled it due to no water in the Danube. Who knew the river was the most important thing for a river cruise? I’d been convinced it was the free booze on board.

Thursday evening I was honored to sign books at the Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers Association convention. Everything was still up in the air while I was there. On Wednesday I had bought our nonrefundable tickets to tour the Anne Frank House. This book was directly across from me, mocking me. The lovely author signing next to me saw me take this photo and misunderstood, offering to take a pic of me signing books, so in a lull between traffic, I explained what had happened and why I was taking that particular picture. She gasped and said, “That’s the saddest story ever! I nodded at the Anne Frank book and said, “Well, maybe not the saddest.”

 

So, resiliency.

I read the cancellation email that morning while my husband was getting ready to go to work so we were able to debrief somewhat. Stunned, we made a weird tentative plan to see if we could step into some other tour going, well, anywhere. I mean, we’d spent months organizing dogsitters and arranging to be gone from work. Surely that couldn’t have been all for naught!

After a few hours of checking and refreshing my email obsessively, the tour person finally emailed and told me she found one going to southern Spain, Portugal, and Morocco over the same dates. Nice, surely, but not on my bucket list.

While obsessively and frantically googling things about the Danube River, I stumbled on this. If only we’d known, we could have booked our cruise for Octo— Hey! Wait.

Our travel agent scrambled to put together an alternative itinerary for us, using the same flights and general areas along the Danube. But that wasn’t what we wanted either. We wanted other people to be in charge for a few weeks, so we told her no thank you to this also.

We both felt utter disbelief. I had expected we might need to portage around some sections of the river due to low water, but complete cancellation wasn’t even on my radar.

All day it was an odd combination of mourning as well as a little bit of relief. Twenty-six days is a long time to depend on others to care for quirky little Nala. Also, we own a small print shop and out of the blue two weeks ago, one of our employees quit, leaving two perfectly capable employees to do the work of four. And all of a sudden, a ton of unexpected work walked in the door, a small part of which would keep four people very busy.

Aren’t these the saddest luggage tags ever?? All dressed up and nowhere to go.

Now, I’m going to stop my sad tale of woe here, lest you think I’m whining, because I’m not, not really. Yes, this was a disruption. Yes, we’ve been looking forward to this trip since summer of 2017 when we booked it. Yes, I’ve enjoyed saying, “Oh, I wish I could do [that thing you invited me to], but I’ll be in [Vienna/Bucharest/Prague/other exotic locale] that night.”

I was looking forward to being out of the country before and during the election. I wanted to send my daughter a birthday card from Romania or someplace cool. I wanted to turn off my brain and have people do and think for me for a few weeks. I wanted to work on notes for my next books while gliding by castles and Old World charm.

But the drought in Europe doesn’t seem to care about any of that.

This is truly the first worldiest of first world problems. Oh no … our 26-day Danube River cruise was cancelled and I got all my money back plus some travel vouchers when we rebook! And how awful … I had to spend Saturday morning creating a 10-day replacement vacation to the Oregon coast where we get to stay in a lighthouse, visit with our daughter and SIL, and spend a few days at an oceanfront resort! Woe is me, how will I ever cope??

We didn’t have much choice but to make lemonade out of this climate change fiasco.

Or did we?

At least 200 other people, just on our boat, got that same cancellation email. How did they react? Did any of them scream and yell at the poor woman who had to sign her name to it? Did any of them faint and need smelling salts like delicate women of yore? Were there threats of lawsuits? Clenching of fists? Rending of garments?

Or was there resilience? Are there 200 alternative itineraries whirling in motion now?

I mentioned that we booked this trip in July of 2017. That was about six months after the tumor was removed from my spine and I’d relearned how to walk.

Maybe I’m more resilient than I realize.

So tomorrow, the first day of our non-vacation, we’re making mimosas with a bottle of champagne I found shoved in the back of the liquor cabinet when I’d stocked it for my house and dog sitters. We’ll toast what might have been, we’ll await the rebooking of our cruise for sometime in 2019, and we’ll thank our lucky stars that we weren’t already in Europe when they cancelled the cruise.

The only question now is … how resilient are inscriptions in books to be donated to the boat’s library?

Six Movies All Parents Should Watch With Their Teens

I read an article a while back by a guy whose wife went on a business trip, leaving him home alone with his teenager. Since it was summer vacation, he decided to make a list of Six Movies All Parents Should Watch With Their Teens, “essential viewing because of their cultural and historical relevance.”

My husband and I tried to make our kids culturally literate in all aspects of their lives. They’ve had all the cool music seep into their subconscious — on vinyl, no less — Sinatra, Queen, Boston, Earth Wind and Fire, Tom Lehrer, Billie Holiday, Pat Benatar, Green Day, and The Beatles, to mention just a few renowned troubadours held in the highest esteem in BeckyLand. They learned how to swing dance. They’ve seen as many Broadway shows in person as we could afford to attend, and the rest on DVD and video. They’ve eaten all kinds of food from when they were tiny. They’ve read widely and deeply in many genres. We traveled with them as often as we could. We watched with them the popular TV shows of the day, which was, admittedly, much easier in the 1990s and 2000s when there were fewer channels.

I will say, the day they laughed at the second or third layer joke in The Simpsons was a proud day for me. Not ashamed to say I wiped a wee tear.

So here is the list that guy proposed:

Witness

Hoosiers

All the President’s Men

To Kill A Mockingbird

Norma Rae

RBG (the new biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg which I haven’t see yet)

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of those, and his covers the historical portion of cultural literacy a bit better than mine, but here’s my list:

The Princess Bride

True Grit (John Wayne version)

Blazing Saddles

Sleepless in Seattle

The King & I … or 1776 …. or The Sound of Music … or Camelot

Stand By Me … or The Sandlot

So, what would be on your list? Keep in mind we’re talking about young teenagers becoming culturally literate here. (Which is why I had to leave off one of my all-time faves, Shawn of the Dead. Such great, gory zombie fun! But probably not for tykes.)

Can We Have A Peek?

… at your workspace?

Personally, I find it fascinating to poke my nose into the various ways authors have of organizing themselves. So I’ve asked a couple of my writer pals to draw back the curtains on where they make their magic.

First up is Catriona McPherson, who writes the funny Last Ditch Mysteries, the historical Dandy Gilver series, and a whole bunch of other award winning standalone mysteries.

 

Here’s the view from my writing desk. I keep all the mystery fiction in my writing room as inspiration and/or pressure to stick at it when the going gets tough. I’ve also got Stephen King, Jane Austen and Dorothy Whipple in there – my favourite writers of all time, dead or alive.

 

My dad made the shelves. He’s been making bookshelves for his daughters since before I was born and this autumn when he comes “on holiday” there are more in the offing, because we’re out of space again.

The doll/clown collection is definitely towards the Stephen King end.

The view of my desk changes a lot in the course of writing a book. I’m quite tidy as a rule, but first draft production makes a big disgusting mess. When there’s an empty peanut butter jar with a spoon in it, Neil knows I’m getting there. An empty pickle jar with a fork in it usually means I’m on the last chapter.

I had to ask Catriona what was on the plate because it didn’t look like pickles or peanut butter, but rather kiwi peels. Lots and lots of kiwi peels. I was wrong. They were artichoke leaves.

Next is Philip Donlay, who writes some of the most heart-pounding thrillers around. When you crack the spine on one of his Donovan Nash books, make sure you have plenty of time to read because you won’t want to stop! Speed the Dawn is his newest one. One of the many fascinating things about Phil is that he is a vagabond with no fixed address. He’ll spend six months here, six months there, six months some other place.

 

I work on the road and typically commandeer the biggest table in the house. I print everything, and what doesn’t fit in its own folder I stick on the wall. Logistics are a huge part of my books, everything and everyone needs to intersect at the right time and place. Visualization is the key.  

This is from the house I rented in Pebble Beach for the writing of Speed the Dawn.

And here’s where yours truly works.

Yes, I stand on a mini-trampoline while I write and Nala waits somewhat patiently for me to be done. If she’s not up here with me, she comes charging up the stairs when she hears the quiet little click of my laptop. When I’m actively writing, I set my timer and go nonstop for one hour. Then I stop and turn on a song and either dance on the trampoline, or use my pink hula hoop to get the blood flowing. Then I do it again for another hour, and perhaps another, but never more than four.

If I’m editing on paper, I sit at that table on the big blue ball. You can see my current work-in-progress there in the binder. Just next to that table is a big elliptical machine, my arch enemy. When I feel like punishing myself, I get on that for five minutes.

And here’s the view standing on my trampoline …

I gaze at the gorgeous Colorado sky and occasionally watch the heron swoop in and steal fish from my neighbor’s pond. I didn’t get a lot of work done when they had two black lab puppies over there.

So there you have three completely different offices. I don’t think any of us would work well in the others’ space. How ’bout you? Where do you work the best?

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

I couldn’t stop reading this, absolutely engrossing.

Written by a former district attorney about a district attorney, it was full of those “telling details” that give weight to fiction.

Literary novel meets legal thriller.

The teenage son of the DA was arrested for the murder of a classmate. Roller coaster plot that you’ll want to strap in for. Double thumbs up.

I also read HUNTING HOUR by my Sisters in Crime pal, Margaret Mizushima, and highly recommend it.

This graphic I made of her Timber Creek K-9 series is not in order. Start with KILLING TRAIL, then STALKING GROUND, then HUNTING HOUR, then BURNING RIDGE. They’re all fantastic.

Margaret writes the Timber Creek K-9 mystery series featuring Deputy Mattie Cobb, her K-9 partner Robo, and Cole Walker, DVM. KILLING TRAIL, book one in the series, was nominated for an RT Reviewer’s Choice award for Best First Mystery, and STALKING GROUND, book two, was named a finalist in the 2017 Colorado Book Awards mystery category.

I find it fascinating that she assists her husband with their veterinary clinic and Angus cattle herd. Writers are just fascinating people, I guess!

Happy Reading!

You’ve Got Mail

I recently hosted a big party with a large invitation list. It has caused me extraordinary curiosity about how people manage their calendars and other household paperwork.

Here’s the sitch … I’ve taken it upon myself to become an advocate, to a very small degree, for foster children. I’m pestering my friends for donations and this party was a fun way to gather backpacks filled with items kids might need when they’re suddenly whisked away from their homes. They go to school one day, only to be picked up mid-day by social services, perhaps never seeing their home or their stuff again. Or they get yanked from their homes with everything they own crammed in a plastic garbage bag.

This is unacceptable to me. Hence, the party. I gave everyone the particulars, and included a shopping wish list for the items to fill the backpacks.

Because of that, I thought it would be easier for people to have a paper invitation … party particulars on the front, wish list on the back.

But I’ve come to find out I’m quite the dinosaur in the way I manage my household. I am by no means a technophobe. I mean, I send and respond to e-vites, I maintain my website and blog, I’ve made Facebook my biyutch, I manage several different email accounts with several different providers, I read and have formatted ebooks, I text like a pro (although sometimes I have to squint), and I set up a GoFundMe for cash donations for the backpacks, for instance.

But I also send and receive mail through the US Postal Service.

So I sent these party invitations in the mail, and only one came back with a bad address. I’d been collecting addresses from people for a couple of months, knowing I was going to be doing this event. They willingly gave me their home addresses for what I referred to as my Party Invitation Database.

I asked for an RSVP because, duh … food. Almost half the people never responded at all, and many didn’t respond until I prompted them with an email.

And then I started getting messages asking me to re-send the info because they couldn’t find it.

I happily sent it, of course, but was a bit flummoxed. At my house, when I get an invitation to something, whether on paper or electronically, I read it. If it sounds like something I want to do, I check the calendar hanging on my kitchen wall. If I’m free, I write it in and RSVP to the host. If there are any details I need to refer back to, I poke the invitation on the nail that holds my calendar. If I’m not free or don’t want to go, I send my regrets to the host. All within a day or two of getting the invitation. Sometimes, I put the invitation in the place where I keep my bills, where I’m sure to see it every week or so.

I don’t need any judgy comments about my undying love for the low-tech paper and pencil, and I don’t mean to be judgy about people who completely eschew their simple elegance, but I reserve the right to give you a side-eye as necessary.

I will, however, harshly judge people who don’t RSVP to a party. Is there any reason for that except extreme rudeness? And seriously, I’m asking. I don’t want to think poorly about people, especially my friends!

But I’ve really gotta know … what do you do when you get invitations or other household paperwork that needs action taken upon it somehow?

You can comment here, mail me, fax, send a telegram, attach your wee note to a carrier pigeon, or use semaphore. You could even call me on my rotary-dial landline. But please, enlighten me as to how you do this.

Becky Clarks Of The World … Unite!

I basked today in the glamour of my writerly life because I did extensive research into the varieties of packing tape and the pros and cons of each to set a scene in a package shipping store. I also dove headlong into the Theme from Shaft today for a 23-word stream of consciousness joke.

All for Important Writing Purposes.

To put the icing on the razzle-dazzle of my glamorous day, I also received these Google alerts. I’ve placed alerts on my name, my titles, and snippets of text to notify me when anyone mentions me or my books online or tries to pirate them.

These alerts keep me humble. They are never about me.

 

 

But I’m thinking of gathering all the Becky Clarks of the world together for a barbeque. It’ll be so exciting to find myself in the midst of all that fame and glory. And maybe we can get Becky to cater it!

First Drafts, Revisions, and Rainbow Flamingos

A couple weeks ago I finished the first draft of METAPHOR FOR MURDER, the third book in my Mystery Writer’s mysteries.

Here are the final, first draft stats:

Total words: 59,173

Total hours: 54

Total writing days: 24

Average words per hour: 1,096

Total pages: 210

I learn — or relearn — something with each manuscript I write. Two things got my attention this time.

One, I should have gone back to read pertinent parts of FICTION CAN BE MURDER to reacquaint myself with some characters I hadn’t seen in awhile. I took too much of my writing time trying to remember the nuance of some of my people. It bogged me down and zapped my momentum.

Two, my vision for the final showdown was weak. And this actually happens all too often. I think, because the story is so much in my head that I expect I know the blocking of the scene better than I really do. I need to take more time with the minutiae of important scenes like this. Again, it slowed me way down and annoyed me.

Now I’m well into the revision stage. This is where I fill in all the blanks I left. When I’m writing the first draft, instead of going backward to find and fix something I’ve already written, I leave notes to myself … He should have called her at some point during the day …… check the timeline, should it be dark yet?

I also write some fairly boring sentences, with a lot of bland or repetitive words, passive verbs, and incomplete description.

If I can’t immediately come up with the right words, I use placeholders like —

I was dug in like a [     ]

She made [frustration noises]

[Describe the room, mentioning the worn spot in the carpet]

Then during Phase Two, when I make that first revision pass-through, I know I have to plug those holes or look up some minor research question right away. I have to stop and determine what Peter O’Drool’s squeaky toy is going to look like (rainbow-colored plush flamingo, for those of you playing along at home). I have to look up potentillas to remind myself what color their flowers are (yellow). I have to decide on all the questions those toddlers are going to ask before I move on (so … many … questions!).

Even though it slows me down in Phase Two.

But by the time I get all that done through the entire manuscript, I get to go back to page one, this time grounding the reader in the story using all the senses, adding layers of theme and emotion, making the funny bits funnier, the mystery bits more mysterious, the clues more hidden or maybe more visible, the writing more vibrant.

It sounds like work, but what do they say about doing a job you love? You’ll never work a day in your life.

Remind me of this when I’m in full-fledged tantrum mode, hating both my book and myself.

Do you keep statistics on your progress for anything? Do you find it as comforting and as fascinating as I find my stats? Do you think it keeps you on track or otherwise benefits you? I also track my weight first thing every morning and I know that keeps me a bit more honest with my food choices during the day.