Category Archives: Writing, Reading and Publishing

Research and The Iceberg Theory

I joke that I write amateur sleuth mysteries because I hate research. But what I mean is that I hate the kind of research that readers get mad at you for. Like if I get a fact wrong about guns, or police procedure, or the exact layout of a city.

But I love all the other kind of research, that which informs the plot or adds a layer you didn’t even know you needed. Or, heck, even something that’s just delightful to learn about, even if you don’t end up using it in your story!

Here are some things I’ve been lucky enough to get to research lately for a couple of my works-in-progress:

  • diner lingo
  • mob trivia
  • costs involved in putting on a one-day event with catering
  • disguises
  • pugs
  • hair extensions
  • small claims lawsuits
  • Colorado mountain resorts
  • dog agility competitions
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • crossword puzzle creation

In FICTION CAN BE MURDER I learned more about the art stolen by the Nazis during WWII. There’s a movement now to determine provenance of many pieces of important artwork and reunite them with their rightful owners. It’s a complicated task, as you can imagine. It involves most of the great museums in the world who are now tasked with investigating their collections to see if they are in possession of any of these looted works of art. But even if they determine the rightful ownership of the paintings, it’s often impossible to repatriate them because many of the families stolen from were destroyed during the war. There’s no one left to take possession of the art.

Hitler and the Nazis purged and confiscated anything they deemed to be “degenerate” art, mostly from Jewish citizens and art dealers and other enemies of the Reich. Some paintings were sold to other nations to raise capital for the Nazi war machine. Some were usurped for the private collections of highly placed Nazis. The rest was sent into storage in caves to hide them from the Allies.

George Clooney’s movie “The Monuments Men” is based on this story.

In FICTION CAN BE MURDER, there’s a visit to the Denver Art Museum with an exhibit of many of the looted works. It’s just a small part of the plot, but I found it a fascinating rabbit hole to dive into.

During my research quest, I was searching for specific subjects of paintings, and stumbled into the looted art stories. These are the paintings I refer to in the story.

“Couple” by Hans Christoph

and “Man and Woman” by Wilhelm Lachnit.

I love the stylized look of these two paintings ”” as did Charlemagne “Charlee” Russo, my sleuth ”” and it was exactly what the story needed.

The story behind the paintings was exactly what *I* needed. Stumbling upon fascinating stories is what keeps my brain clicking away.

It didn’t really fit in FICTION CAN BE MURDER to take a long detour into the land of looted artwork, and I’m reminded of the “Iceberg Theory of Writing.” The tip of the iceberg is what you show your readers. But everything underneath the water is what the author knows. All that research. Your characters’ habits, likes, and dislikes. Backstory. It’s all under there, floating around.

As a reader, do you like to learn tidbits in your novels? What’s something you’ve learned recently? As a writer, is it difficult to know when to stop researching a subject that fascinates you? How do you know how much to include in your novel?

 

 

How Much Cursing Is Okay In A Cozy?

I originally posted this over at Mysteristas, but I wanted it here, too. So if it seems familiar, you’re not having a mystical déjà vu moment. Or are you ….

♦ ♦ ♦

Since I wanted to get your opinion on cozies today, I thought I’d bribe you a bit with pics of Nala, my cozy cuddlebug. (See what I did there?)

There are a lot of colors in the “Mystery” rainbow: cozies, legal and medical thrillers, police procedurals, suspense, romantic suspense, historicals, private eyes, noir, capers … and more!

And don’t forget the subgenres! Just under the “cozy” umbrella there are crafting cozies, cupcake cozies, cat cozies, hobby cozies, etc, etc, etc. There are even some stay-at-home-dad cozies.

Most readers read across the spectrum to some degree, but writers tend to stick with one genre.

I’ve always told people I write cozies because my definition is that they have an amateur sleuth, are usually funny or light-hearted, not a lot of violence or sex, and usually set in a small town. But I was at a party recently and a friend told me about a controversy she’d been following about readers giving one-star reviews to cozies that don’t follow the reader’s “rules,” whether that’s absolutely no cursing, or that cozies must have a recipe, or whatever. They’ll turn up their noses and slam the author for “calling their book a cozy when it’s clearly a traditional. Harrumph.”

Now, I don’t mind a well-reasoned negative review (well, I do, but that’s a conversation for my therapist) but those arbitrary and angry 1-stars bring down an authors rating, causing all sorts of problems for their career.

And when I stumble across the phrase “traditional mystery,” I’m stumped. How is that different from a cozy?

I don’t think anyone would argue that Agatha Christie is the Queen of the Traditional Mystery, but look at the Miss Marple books. She ticks all my “cozy” boxes.

But Writing World separates “cozies” and “amateur sleuths” into two distinct genres.

I decided, with FICTION CAN BE MURDER, my new perhaps-cozy-perhaps-traditional-perhaps-amateur-sleuth-but-definitely-not-police-procedural mystery coming out soon, I needed a definitive answer.

So I started asking people, beginning with a Facebook group I recently joined called A Cozy Experience Online Cozy Mystery Book Club. With a name like that, they will know!

I asked them how they defined cozies. Here are some of the insightful answers I got:

  • I define a cozy as a “soft” mystery with no blood curdling scenes and no cursing in a homey setting where only one or maybe two bullying, egotistical jerks live.
  • I don’t like any cursing in my cozys, nor do I like any sexual activity, implied or otherwise. To me traditional mysteries and cozys are entirely different entities. Cozys the murder occurs quietly off scene, mysteries that’s not always the case. I expect a mystery to be a little more graphic but not necessarily as gruesome as a thriller.
  • Hm, I’m wondering how I’d categorize series like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, or Diane Kelly’s “Death, Taxes, and…” series, both of which I love and which fit the bill for most of the cozy check points (humor, young single female protagonist, light on gore or violence or criminal psych study, and justice is always served – but both series can be more graphic when it comes to language & sex (neither of which bother me at all).
  • Mild cursing is fine, eg “gosh darn”or “shoot.” And I am all for romance in cozies though nothing too explicit, I’m there for the mystery not the sex. Also I am really really really getting tired of love triangles in cozies. A love triangle is NOT cozy. Sorry for the shouting. [This comment made me laugh!]
  • I always think of a cozy as a story that happens to have a murder involved but it’s really more about the protagonist’s life. Also in a cozy mystery the protagonist’s hobby or career are as important, if not more important than the murder. I don’t mind cursing, especially if it fits the character. And I don’t mind the sex if it drives the story.
  • A cozy mystery takes me to a new place, introduces me to new people, and tosses in a murder or two or three.
  • A cozy is also supposed to have an amateur detective (a regular person like you or me) as the main character. Some books are called cozies but are really just mysteries or maybe humorous mysteries. I’m not picky though, I read them all.
  • I enjoy cozies. I do not enjoy graphic violence or really twisted characters which often appear in mysteries other than cozies. I don’t want to feel “sick” when I read. Mild cursing is not a problem for me, however, I do sometimes find some cozies “too sweet” and it gets old.
  • I would say Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories are almost the ideal cozies. Don’t see the violence. Don’t see the sex. Figuring out the mystery is done by brain power. Jane didn’t have a strong supporting cast which I think is needed in a good cozy series. (There are a couple of series that I enjoy the sleuth’s buddies more than the main character.)
  • To me, a cozy is a relatable character that has a fun job/hobby that is also included in the book ”” baker has recipes, crafter has craft projects, etc. I don’t mind mild cursing. A traditional mystery to me is one where the character is a policeman or detective. Someone doing a job they normally perform. But they are less approachable, for lack of a better word. Cozy characters draw me in and could be my best friend or myself even. I also think cozies have a good bit of comedy added.
  • No cursing or swearing…mild violence, nothing gory. Relatable characters, quirky and funny…laugh at themselves. Mild romance, friendships. Also like the series that include crafts, baking, decorating, pets…so many great theme series out there!
  • Cozy mysteries are fun and the characters are more quirky than in a traditional mystery.
  • And someone posted this link to an interesting article defining cozy mysteries.

Quite a lot of agreement, except about the profanity, which kind of worries me because I taught my two sailors everything they needed to know when they shipped out. I get one more pass through my manuscript before it’s set in stone, so I’ll scrub it as clean as makes sense. But what makes sense to me, may not make sense to my readers.

What do you think about my definition of cozies … or the difference between cozy and traditional … or how much cursing is okay in a cozy?

1,000 True Fans

I first read about the concept of “1,000 True Fans” a long time ago from someone in the music industry. The gist of it, for him, was that if he got 1,000 people to spend $100 every year buying his music, going to his concerts, ordering the t-shirts, or whatever, that would translate to $100,000. A pretty nice yearly income from his art.

I started thinking about this in terms of my writing. I make money on my books, but it’s not my primary source of income, so I defined my idea of success for me.

• I want to have FICTION CAN BE MURDER in every public library district in the United States.

• I want at least 50 Amazon and Goodreads reviews and ratings with at least a 4.0 average.

• And I want True Fans who are excited every time I have a new book or short story out.

So how does that happen?

You.

If you like my writing (or if you just like me!), there are many things you can do to ensure I get to keep writing. (Publishers don’t like it when books don’t sell or when there’s no buzz.) Here are some suggestions. If you can see fit to do one or more of these things, you will have my undying gratitude and find yourself in True Fan territory.

• Pre-order FICTION CAN BE MURDER from your favorite bookseller before it launches in April from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or find an independent bookstore,  and encourage your friends to do the same. When you pre-order, the book gets shipped to you the minute it’s released. The bigger the pre-orders, the higher the rank, the more likely it will get other buzz from Amazon or certain lists, etc. Buzz, buzz, buzz. It grows exponentially.

• Share info about my books on your social media. (Here’s the direct link to my Amazon page you can use.)

• Request that your public library carry FICTION CAN BE MURDER by Becky Clark. They’ll only need the ISBN 978-0-7387-5332-4. This is very important to me. I love libraries and I love the idea of one book being shared multiple times all over the country. Ask your friends to do the same at their library.

• Post photos of my book in the wild ”” in your hand or at the library or at a bookstore or something uber-creative that I can share. (Be sure to send me a copy!)

• Post Amazon and/or Goodreads reviews and ratings. Honest reviews influence readers and are very important to author rankings. Reviews don’t have to be long to be effective, just a couple of sentences work. Reviews are important all the time over the life of a book, but they’re especially important during the week of its release, April 8, 2018 in my case. Which is also why pre-ordering is so very important.

• Come to my book events and bring your friends. Subscribe to (and read!) my newsletter for all things book-related … sign up here or at BeckyClarkBooks.com

• Ask your book club to read FICTION CAN BE MURDER as one of their monthly selections and ask the members to post their reviews.

• If you’re on Goodreads, add FICTION CAN BE MURDER to their various lists. I’ve seen lots of lists where it would fit, for example ”” books that make you laugh, woman-authored books, humorous mysteries, beach reads-mystery, best of little-known authors, cozy mystery series-first book of a series, best cozy mystery series, best humorous books, and my favorite list … “If You Like Books by Janet Evanovich, You May also Like…” If FICTION CAN BE MURDER is already listed, then vote on it to raise it higher on the list.

So, those are a few things you can do to help me.

You have all the power.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, and one where it’s too easy to lose perspective. It’s so gratifying when people enjoy what I’ve done and I want to keep doing it as long as I can, so THANK YOU for indulging and encouraging me.

Mwah!

 

 

 

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets a Scalpel In Their Back

Today marks one year since my spinal surgery. You remember, that day they sliced through the fascia in my upper back, hand-cranked my muscles out of the way, chipped away part of my spine, scooped out that benign meningioma, then whispered to my nerves an admonition to behave.

Remember? No? Honestly, me neither. But I’ve been re-reading all the notes I took before and after surgery, the texts I sent myself in the middle of the night in the hospital so I wouldn’t forget anything, the Facebook posts charting my phenomenal victories. “Two laps around the kitchen in my walker … woohoo!”

I was fastidious about keeping notes because one, that’s how I roll, and two, because when I found out I had this tumor and needed surgery, I searched ”” and I mean SEARCHED ”” for first-person accounts. But there were none to be had. So I knew, if I survived, I’d have to write one.

There are some interesting passages in my notes.

“You can do a lot of things with words, but describing pain isn’t one of them. Shooting, stabbing, aching, throbbing, twinging, cramping, seering … none of these describe anything happening to me.”

“When that pain roars back it’s like a bullet train. Fast and directly at me. Feels quite personal. Like a betrayal.”

“I can absolutely see people just giving up. Pain is hard. Moving is hard. Everything is hard. Here [in the hospital] they just do stuff for you. Or they don’t and you realize you just don’t care.”

This fascinates me because I honestly don’t remember much pain.

“My neurosurgeon came in to check on me [the next day], and was very pleased with himself. Said I was fully cured. I disagreed with him just the teensiest bit.”

“These texts to myself don’t make any noise. Once in awhile, though, it makes my “sending” noise and I wonder who I just told all my poop info to.”

This is hilarious in retrospect because I had obviously been cogent enough to turn the sound on and off, but I acted like it was a highly unusual rift in the Universe.

Mostly my middle-of-the-night texts were perfectly lucid. And then there was this one: “I hope I don’t have to muster all the persistence/hope/etc. I’d prefer it to be thrust upon me.”

Huh?

And, yes, I was on drugs …. “Your leg pain brought to you this morning by Sleeping Too Long On Your Left Hip. Side effects include cursing, saying bad words, expletives, and grandiloquent language. Treatment includes pancakes and finger weapons. Pew-pew-pew.”

When people ask how I am these days, I tell them the truth. Still numb across my upper back, my right underarm, my lady bits, and my left leg. My balance is weird, so it always looks like I’m walking just the teensiest bit drunk. Still some things I can’t do ”” walk barefoot, run without looking like a walrus on the beach, jump, or hurry for any reason.

But that’s about it. Can’t really complain, considering all the slicing, cranking, chipping, and scooping. Unfortunately, my recovery after 12 months isn’t vastly different from my recovery after 2 months. Except I’m less cranky today. And I still can’t clip my toenails very easily.

The difference between 2 months and 12 months is clearly one of acceptance. I’ve lost perspective after all this time about how I really am, versus how much I’ve simply adapted to my limitations.

But I continue to surprise myself. I still work with my personal trainer. Last night she had me do single-leg squats with my foot behind me on a chair. Neither one of us thought I could do it. For the first set, I glommed onto her for balance while getting myself sorted. For the second set, I glommed onto her and then she gave me 15-pound weights to hold and walked across the room. For the third set, she stayed across the room. Afterward she said, “You couldn’t do that before your surgery.”

So, yes, acceptance and attitude. But I would like to find an ending for this tale of sound and fury so I can start crafting my memoir. I was thinking about signing up for the Colfax Half-Marathon, but am so relieved I came to my senses. Running like a walrus on a beach for two blocks of a 13-mile race is a lousy ending to a memoir. Worse if I actually croaked while doing it, which is the likely scenario.

Then I was thinking that the ending would be when I went to soap up my armpit and it magically felt like an actual armpit, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen any time soon. Or perhaps ever.

And then I was thinking, maybe the ending will be when I can tap dance. But I wasn’t really doing that particularly well before the surgery.

So now, I don’t know. How do you think I should end my story about an ordeal that hasn’t technically ended?

What, You Ask, Are Copyedits Like?

Doing copyedits on a novel is like being sent on the most intense scavenger hunt EVER.

Page 43 sends you to the notes on page 168 and then to the notes on page 285 so you read them all, then tweak page 43 and/or page 285 but you decide with the other tweaks, page 168 is okay as it stands. So you go back to continue on at page 44. But when you get to page 168 and see the note from your editor, you don’t remember if you changed page 43 so you go back to check. But page 43 isn’t page 43 anymore because you’ve added and/or deleted words since then … because page 59 sent you to page 12 which sent you to page 97. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

By the time you’ve gotten lost in the minutiae of the manuscript, you can’t even remember your own name, much less what that character said about the photographer, or if that one had a cigar, or why that one didn’t make that important call when she said she would!

That’s the time to collapse in a heap sobbing, “I don’t KNOW what color the curtains are! I don’t KNOW why she hasn’t changed clothes yet! I don’t KNOW what direction that road goes!”

And then, of course, you slink downstairs to take a deep, cleansing breath and to remove a single piece of dark chocolate from its hiding place. With the sharp aftertaste of cacao on your tongue you straighten your shoulders, march upstairs, and get back to it, blessing your copyeditor for asking all these questions.

Because you’re a writer and this is what writers do.

My First Paid Gig

payThis was the very first piece of writing I ever got paid for. It was the first thing I ever submitted.  Fifty bucks that might as well have been fifty thousand. That’s how good it felt. The editor told me she bought it because I made her laugh and I made her think. High praise, indeed.

Since I’m guessing you didn’t subscribe to The Prairie Times at the turn of the century, here it is in all its glory.

Controlling an Uncontrollable World

I have control issues.

I have some weight issues too, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

You know how the jelly sometimes drips on the outside of the jar which makes your hand all sticky when, yet again, you have to put it away after the kids eat lunch? I hate that.

And how the refrigerator ends up being home to a gazillion little plastic containers of leftovers in various states of decay? I hate that too.

And how you go to the grocery store and some prepubescent man-cub (who, I’ll wager, has never bought groceries for a family of five) carefully arranges your bread at the bottom of the bag and then proceeds to load it up with four jars of spaghetti sauce, a two-pound bag of carrots, and a half-gallon of ice cream? Again, hate that.

And loud, obnoxious cell phone users talking about their latest run-in with their child’s soccer coach/teacher/pediatrician while shopping for cereal . . . don’t get me started.

So, you see it’s true. I have serious control issues and an obvious preoccupation with groceries, which leads me to tell you that I am trying to lose ten pounds.

In the greater scheme of cosmic events, it isn’t much of a crisis; the world certainly has bigger problems to attend to. But I turned forty recently and without any warning ”” POOF ”” gray hair, a map of the canals of Venice in blue veins on my legs, and an extra ten pounds.

I can’t control much of that, but I can control what I eat and how much I exercise. Theoretically anyway.

Therefore, of the three, the ten measly pounds seems like the problem to tackle. What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s only the size of a bag of flour. A really big bag of flour, but still.

I’ll count calories. I’ll exercise. Piece of cake. (Even my cliches are food-related. Do you see my cross to bear?)

In a perfect world, broccoli would taste as good as cheesecake and watching television would create negative calories.

But I live in an imperfect world.

Broccoli, while having many good qualities, does not taste as good as cheesecake. Watching TV with reckless abandon for so many years has helped to create this innertube around my mid-section. On the plus side, however, I can sing the theme songs in their entirety to both “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Addams Family,” including finger snaps.

And I could go on. And on and on. Ask my husband.

You’re probably thinking, assuming you haven’t already fallen from your chair from in extremis ennui, that I seem to have a healthy grasp on the situation and that I’m really no different from you. After all, we all have things in our lives we want to control.

But I’m guessing you’ve never demanded ice tea in your special Batman glass with a pre-determined number of ice cubes. Nor have you painstakingly demonstrated to your indifferent children the exact right way to vacuum the floor. And I’ll wager that you haven’t alphabetized your spice rack, your book shelves, AND your coupons.

Knowing this about me, you can now imagine what it’s like in the morning at my kitchen table while I read the newspaper.
Fires!
Drought!
Dirty politicians!
Teenagers rampaging through schools with guns!
Religious zealots!
Pedophile monsters plucking children from their homes!

I can’t control any of this.

Some mornings I give new meaning to the term ”˜apoplectic.’ I have an opinion about all of it, and I’m always willing to share.

I want to control these things I read about. It would be so simple if everyone would just ask me first. I’d be happy to tell them how to solve each and every problem they encounter. I really don’t think it would take too much effort; after all, I don’t want much.

I want people to be smart and kind to one another. I want people to be honest. I want children, elders and pets to be loved and cherished simply because they exist. I want there to be fewer people using drugs and more people using deodorant. I want fewer people in jail and more people in school.

I want drivers to enter an intersection only when they can complete their turn. I want medicine to be affordable for everyone. I want scientists to figure out how to make cheeseburgers and brownies health food ”” after they cure cancer and the common cold, that is. I want medical providers to know everything and never make mistakes.

I want weather forecasters to be impeccably accurate at all times. I want underwear models to look like me and the rest of the women who inhabit the real world. I want teachers paid more and athletes paid less.

I want schools to be places where young people challenge themselves and learn from their mistakes. I want everyone to learn to read when they’re five and continue to do so voraciously for the rest of their lives.

I want teenagers to smooch and hold hands at the movies and let that tide ”˜em over for awhile. I want everyone to have a mind-altering college experience without drugs. I want an end to babies being born to alcoholic and drug-addicted women. I want boys to know there is a difference between being macho and being a man.

I want people to cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy. I want people to slow down ”” in their cars and in their lives. I want people to quit saying “I forgot” as an absolute defense, whether it relates to the toilet seat or their infant left in a sweltering car.

It may sound contradictory to tell you that I want people to accept different points of view since it must seem like I’m one of those dames who thinks she’s always right. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m probably not always perfectly, in every instance, exactly right every single time.

I am, however, a dogmatic and opinionated dame, and you won’t believe this either, but I really don’t care when people disagree with me. Quite the contrary. I want people to be as passionate about their opinions as I am. I want people to be able to articulate why they believe something. I want people to tell me I’m wrong and to show me the proof. But if they won’t or can’t, then I don’t care what they think.

I come by this character trait quite honestly. I grew up in a large family and we ate dinner together every night. On the rare occasion that anything interesting ever happened to one of us, we would begin to chat about that. But then, when the conversation lulled, usually after about thirty seconds, my father would make some sort of proclamation.

It might be simple like, “Women should never be allowed to drive.”
Or “When a child gets to age thirteen, he should be sent away until he’s thirty.”
Or “Two-years-olds paint better than Jackson Pollock.”
Or “Mighty Mouse could never beat Superman in a fair fight.”

Straightforward, direct statements.

Or they might be more complicated like, “If it weren’t for those Bleeding Heart Liberals, the family farm would have survived.”
Or “As a direct result of Daylight Savings Time, crime has increased 68%.”
Or “Gideon v. Wainwright is a much more important court decision than Miranda v. Arizona.”

Huh?

You had to have a certain amount of basic knowledge of current events to jump into the fray. But that’s exactly what we were expected to do.

The point of the exercise, unknown to me at the time, was to get us to form and articulate an opinion about the topic du jour, regardless of how absurd or whimsical. I was an adult before I realized my dad never believed any of the weird statements he made. Well, except the one about women drivers.

While people tend to adore my father, I’ve come to the unfortunate realization that they seem a bit leery of me. Imagine. I’ve learned to form opinions, I can certainly argue my point of view, and now I just want everything the way I want it. I want to be able to control as many things as possible, yet know which can’t be controlled. Is that so unreasonable?

For instance, I can’t control wildfires, but I don’t have to cook my hot dogs over an open grill.

I can’t end the drought, but I can xeriscape my yard.

I can’t force politicians to be honest, but I can investigate as thoroughly as possible the candidate I vote for.

I can’t identify teenagers who are going to go shoot up a school, but I can make sure my own kids have a bucketful of self-control.

I can’t keep terrorists from exacting their brand of retribution, but I can live and preach tolerance.

I can’t brand every pedophile with a scarlet letter, but I can keep a watchful eye on my neighborhood.

Maybe it’s like that old adage “think globally, act locally.” If I can keep a firm grasp on the issues in my little world, maybe that’s enough. After all, you have to eat your elephant one bite at a time, right? (Again with the food!)

So ten pounds . . . big whoop, as the kids say.

Who knows? After I control these ten pounds, maybe I’ll try to tackle bigger issues in my life. Crooked politicians? Crime? Low SAT scores? The lack of a really good delicatessen in my neighborhood?

Maybe this will be harder than it seems.

What was the sweetest money you ever earned?