Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Purple Loon: Serial Short Story, Part 4

by Kim Smith

“Whoa! Hold up.” I held up my hands to show I wasn't armed. “That's my son, and he is innocent of whatever you think is wrong here.”

“I need some money,” the man said, his dirty face wrinkling into a scowl.

“Sure, man, sure,” I said. “Easy does it.” I pulled forty dollars from my pocket and stepped closer to him. “You gotta let the boy go though.”

He considered my words and nodded once. I held the money out. He shoved Zak toward me. snatched it from my shaking hand. My breaths were coming hard and fast now as I situated Zak behind me. My eyes never left our assailant. He sheathed the knife and giving me a terrible look, sat down on a nearby stack of old newspapers, blocking our only way out.

“Mister,” I stammered. “You need Jesus in the worst way.”

“He ain't never helped me.”

“You never asked right.”

Once again he shot me a mean look. 

“Look,” I said, placating. “We're just going to take off. You can continue on with your life, as bad as it is, but just let us go.”

“Don't wanna go on. Wish I was just dead and buried. Might get a little peace that way.”

Suddenly, I knew that we were in no danger from this man. He had just had a bellyful of life and its trials and wanted some relief. I pulled out my wallet.

“I've got a hundred in here,” I said, fumbling around. “I'll give it to you.”

“Why?” His face showed genuine fear now. “I ain't done nothin' nice to you.”

“Because, you don't have to do nice things to be saved. You just have to believe and say it and it's done.”I pulled out the bill and waved it at him. “Are you saved? Do you know Jesus, for real?”

In a moment, big fat tears rolled down his cheeks and his shoulders shook with the sobs that came from a tortured soul. He covered his eyes. I took a step toward him and when he didn't object, knelt beside him.

“Sir,”I said softly. “Let me pray for you. Let's get this old life dead and buried and get on with a new one. One where you can find joy and peace.”

He nodded, wiping his face on his sleeve. 

Then, there in the presence of a dead body that I knew we would have to take care of after we dealt with a living soul needing new life, we prayed. Zak joined us, and soon, given new hope, the man admitted to the murder and we waited on officers to come.

Later, walking around the grounds that I had known so well in my youth, I remembered how I had turned my life over to Jesus here. The thought of turning the old place into a retreat for recovering souls, men and women of past addictions, and anyone who needed peace came to my mind.

I told Zak of my idea, and he patted my shoulder and smiled.

Yep, there was a lot of hope here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Purple Loon - Part 3

I endured Zak’s moaning and groaning about coming to the lake for the past several hours. How ironic of him to find something of interest at the moment I wanted to leave. I decided to give him a minute to indulge in whatever it was he’d found inside the storage closet in the old dining hall. Before I could take my first step toward him, he yelled again. This time it was more like a shriek of panic.

“Dad, hurry!” He pointed at the white object sticking out from under a crumpled old blanket. “What … is that what I think it is?”

The fear in his voice made it clear it wasn’t the baby raccoons I’d fully expected to see. Zak was a city boy. He’d never experienced joys I remember of those long summers vacations here or the critters that routinely invaded these buildings when no one was looking. No, clearly someone else had taken advantage of the abandoned camp ground for a much darker reason.

“Son.” I pulled him away from the storage room door. “Why don’t you go wait for me in the car?”

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“We need to call the police. Go on, do as you’re told. I won’t be long.”

“But, dad.”

“But nothing. Go!” I waited until Zak was outside before stooping down and lifting the blanket to reveal a human femur and skull. A thick layer of dust floated off the covering into my face. I coughed and sneezed several times and was sickened at the thought of having drawn into my lungs the dust that had concealed this horrid secret. I reached for my cell and started to dial 911 then stopped. My thoughts immediately flashed to the years of silence between Daphne and I. Had she really sold the place out from under me? Maybe that’s why the old sign still hung from its pole and my grandparents’ cabin still stood yards away from this building. I had no proof, only hearsay of the sale. And why hadn’t she told me of her husband’s death?

I looked at the skull again and tried to imagine Mark’s face. My finger froze on the send button of my cell when the unthinkable idea came that the dearly departed might have been capable of murder.


“I thought I told you—” The words caught in my throat when I turned and saw the stranger holding a knife to Zak’s throat.

Read part 1
Read part 2
To be continued on March 31, 2011 ...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Purple Loon - Part 2

I stood and watched for several minutes as the ash floated, dispersed, and finally dissipated beneath the mirrored water. The sun was starting to sink low in the west, and the mist that always rose from Loon Lake at dusk was just appearing, ghost-like above the surface. I crossed myself, a final act of respect for my dear departed sister, and started back to the car.

It took a second to realize Zak had let the boredom overcome him, and he was nowhere in sight.

No doubt off exploring the decaying ruins of my family’s favorite vacation spot. I detoured from the car and started down the washed out gravel road between the cottages. The shadows from the setting sun were lengthening with every step, and the mists were beginning to muffle the sounds.

“Zak! C’mon buddy, let’s get outta here before it gets too late!"

I listened for the sounds of footsteps, and heard none. I continued further down the row, calling out every few seconds. The air was turning cool and damp as the shadows took over the light. As warm and inviting as this place was in the summers of my youth, as a father searching for his missing son it was ominous and foreboding.


I continued on, past the diminutive general store building that used to sell the summer guests kindling for campfires, charcoal for their grills and all the ingredients for the best S’mores ever made. If not for the growing panic in the pit of my stomach, it was an enjoyable stroll down memory lane. I couldn’t fathom why Daphne kept the place at first, and I was completely lost as to why she said she sold it. We never lied to each other before. We lied to our parents when we got in trouble, and to the principal the day we skipped school to go the Red Sox game, taking the "T" all the way to Fenway Park. But never to each other.


I was moving at a jog towards the dining hall, when I saw the swirl of the mist and the shadow of another person moving towards the old dining hall. I quickened my pace, finally breaking into a run as I went straight for the hall. The door swung shut as I reached it, and I burst through with a flourish.

“Dad?! What the hell…?” Zak yelled, pulling the earbuds for the I-pod out of his ears. I grabbed his shoulders caught somewhere between fury, panic, and relief. I should have let him have it, blast him for wandering off. I hugged him instead.

“C’mon, Zak. I want to get back to Portland tonight before we head home in the morning.”

“You used to come up here all the time when you were kids?” he asked, kicking through years of dust.

“Yeah, like a million years ago. “ My mind wandered off to the evening meals with all the other families that stayed here.

“Dad!” I heard Zak call from across the room. “Come here, quick!”


See Part 1 of this story, here. Part 2 was written by the author of Key Lime Squeeze, Ron Adams. The next installment will be courtesy of Marta Stephens, on Wednesday, March 30th.

Monday, March 28, 2011

WHO DO I HAVE TO KILL? by Ellen Meister

The Story of How My Book Got Optioned by HBO

© Ellen Meister 2011 all rights reserved

When Aaron Lazar invited me to blog on MURDER BY 4 about how I got my HBO deal, I had two worries. First, how was I going to tie the story into the theme of this blog? (Answer: get cute with the title. See above.) And second, would it be okay to submit a one sentence entry? Because in reality I didn't do a damned thing.

Okay, I wrote a book. But beyond that, I was nothing but a passive bystander who didn't even have a front row seat to witness the action.

I'll back up. When I got the high concept idea for THE OTHER LIFE—a story about a woman with the ability to cross through a portal to the life she would have had if she had made different choices—I knew it felt cinematic. But I had no real hopes for a movie or TV deal. After all, people told me my first two books would play well on screen, and Hollywood didn't come calling. So I just focused on writing the book, digging as deep as I could into the very emotional story, hoping it would touch people.

When the final draft was approved by my editor at Putnam, my literary agent showed the manuscript to a film agent who agreed to represent it in Hollywood. I never got to speak directly to the film agent ... and still haven't. All communication goes through my literary agent, who explained that the odds against a sale were tremendous and I shouldn't get my hopes up. I wasn't supposed to think about it.

No problem.

Except that every conversation I had with my husband over the next several months seemed to end with the pointless fun of brainstorming ideas for who could play the leads.

Still, I managed to put my head down and get to work, writing the next book and promoting THE OTHER LIFE. Once in a while I managed to sneak it into a conversation with my agent, using phrases like, and if it gets optioned for a movie ... To which she always responded, or television.

I even managed to work the topic into a conversation with my editor, pining about how great it would be if THE OTHER LIFE got optioned for a movie. To which she replied, or television.


"I think they're talking to television people," I said to my husband. And once the phrase was uttered aloud, I permitted myself the indulgence of believing talks might actually be underway. Perhaps I'd get a call from my agent soon telling me USA/AMC/Lifetime/TNT wanted the option.

"Showtime?" my husband offered.

No no no. I wouldn't dare dream that big.

It was just days later that I saw my agent's phone number on the caller ID. Only it was after business hours and it wasn't her office number, it was her cellphone. My heart pounded. Could this be significant?

Deep breaths, I told myself. There are a thousand-and-one things she could be calling about, each more likely than a television option. I answered calmly, and heard her begin a sentence with three words I never expected to hear:

H ... B ... O ...


Okay, so maybe I didn't pass out cold. But I did scream so loud my kids are still traumatized.

For the record, I am a huge HBO fan. The brilliance, the talent, the boundary-busting creativity of those folks knocks me on my ass. But I'd be lying if I said a series on HBO is a dream come true, because I never dared dream that big.

To be clear, this is an option, and it could be quite a while before I find out if the series will actually get produced. In the meantime, I'm not going to think about it. I'm not.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch BOARDWALK EMPIRE again ...


Ellen Meister is the author of three novels. In addition to being optioned for an HBO television series, her most recent book, THE OTHER LIFE (Putnam, 2011), was chosen by the American Booksellers Association as a Great Reads/Indie Next List selection, and was featured on NPR. Her other published works include THE SMART ONE (HarperCollins, 2008) and SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA (HarperCollins, 2006), as well as numerous short stories. She currently curates for DimeStories, a literary podcast program, and runs an online group for women authors. Ellen lives on Long Island with her husband and three children and is at work on her fourth novel, FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER. For more information visit her website at

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Purple Loon: Serial Short Story, Part 1

Good day fellow writers and readers. Today is a momentous occasion here on Murder by 4. Our team of four mystery writers has come together to bring you a story - a four part story, to be exact, written in series by each of us. Today you'll read my opener. Tuesday, you'll thrill to Ron Adam's part 2. On Wednesday, you'll be treated to Marta Stephen's third section, and on Thursday, you'll enjoy the finale, written by M. Kim Smith. I hope you enjoy our foray into the world of collaborative writing.

- Aaron Paul Lazar

“I’m bored.” My son sighed and leaned his shaggy head against the rental car window.
At seventeen, Zak didn’t exactly value my company. But he’d been the only member of our family free to drive six hours to Maine for an unexpected funeral.
“We’re almost there. Here. Eat a Twinkie.” I tossed the bag of junk food toward him, hoping to win a smile. He’d been quiet and distracted during the service.
He moaned and sputtered, but dug into the bag and brought up a Twinkie.
We continued down the bumpy dirt track toward the place I’d been happiest as a child. I’d avoided it for years, ever since Daphne told me she’d sold our grandparents’ camp to a realtor who’d turned it into a condominium lakeside resort.
How could she? She’d just upped and sold it.
I hadn’t spoken to her for ten years because of the nasty argument we’d had, and felt awful when I discovered at the funeral that her husband had died around the same time she’d sold the place.
We rounded the last curve. “Here we are.”
The old sign—The Purple Loon, Housekeeping Cottages—still swung from its pole.
Strange. Why wouldn’t they change the sign if they’d bulldozed the cabins and erected monstrosity condos on the shore?
What was stranger, however, was the sight that greeted us. My grandparents’ original cabin stood intact, not far from the old dining hall. A few red shutters hung crooked on the windows. I caught a glimpse of the lake, and spotted multiple cabins stretching down the hill.
“What the hell?” I got out and turned in a dizzy circle.
Zak emerged, stretching. “I thought you said Aunt Daphne…”
“I know what I said.”
“Geez, Dad.”
I slid an arm over his shoulders. “Sorry, son. Aunt Daphne didn’t tell me the truth about this place.”
I popped the trunk, leaned down, and tucked a brown canister under my arm. “Come on.”
We strolled down the sandy path toward the water.
“Dad?” Zak spread his gangly arms wide. “Where are all the people?”
I scanned the dilapidated buildings. No leaves rustled. No footsteps fell. Any renters who happened to show up would probably be ghosts. Nobody could live in these conditions.
We passed the old shower building. Next, the sun deck, half caved-in. To our right, the community center where we’d played games by the fire on cold nights. Its door hung on one hinge.
We reached the dock and stopped. Loon Pond glittered, its surface glassy in the late afternoon light. In spite of the beauty, my stomach twisted in frustration. Why had Daphne lied to me?
I picked up the urn and walked onto the dock. Zak followed.
“Well, sis. This is the best place for you.” I unscrewed the top of the urn and tipped it sideways. “May your spirit, however dishonest, be free.”
I emptied Daphne’s ashes over the lake, looking for answers in the floating gray cinders.
I found none.

... to be continued on Tuesday, March 29th.
(See Aaron's bio and specials on his books this week on the tab above for Aaron Paul Lazar.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Warren Adler - How I got the idea for my mystery series and the principal character Fiona FitzGerald.

Today we welcome back renowned novelist Warren Adler. It's a distinct pleasure to be allowed a rare glimpse into this great writer's world, and the story behind the story. Fiona Fitzgerald is one of my favorite characters in Mr. Adler's books, so this is a particularly enjoyable post for yours truly.

-  Aaron Lazar
copyright 2011, Warren Adler

It was the early eighties and the mass media consensus on gender was undergoing a massive change. Women were on the march and the emphasis was on both upward mobility and equality on all fronts, especially in the workplace.

In the culture of imaginative fiction, the concept of the heroic figure was being “genderized” and the notion of the female cop, soldier, firefighter, construction worker and other jobs once considered male turf was swiftly disappearing.

Although I had never tackled the mystery genre which was growing in popularity, my agent persuaded me to take the plunge and since I lived in the metropolitan Washington area, I decided to use the police department that covered the nation’s capitol as my venue. In casting around for a knowledgeable female who could give me some insight into the inner workings of the department and her own psyche I was lucky to find an experienced female homicide detective, Judy Roberts, who led me deep into the entrails of the mindset and procedure of police work as seen through the female perspective.

Thus was born Fiona FitzGerald, a brilliant young white woman, working with the largely black dominated police force. Because I was familiar with the political and social circles of the power elite in Washington, I conceived the idea of Fiona working only on those cases that involved that segment of the Washington upper crust.

The first book in the series “American Quartet,” dealt with a failed politician whose twisted mind conceived of the idea of staging a replication of the assassinations of our four American Presidents. It was cited for that year by the New York Times as being one of the most outstanding mystery books of that year. The series was born, although the background of Fiona was to undergo a profound change after the second book “American Sextet” was published.

In the first two books, Fiona’s father was a New York cop and she had grown up in that city. As with all of my books, the movie people beckoned and I found myself discussing film projects with a number of producers. One of them suggested to me that instead of making Fiona, the daughter of New York cops, it might be more interesting to make her the daughter of a prominent Senator who had grown up in Washington.

The idea appealed to me for many reasons and I made the change, immersing her in a culture that I knew a great deal about. She was now ensconced in the heady precincts of elite Washington with many contacts in that world, social, political and media and allow me the opportunity to expand on all the possibilities inherent in that milieu.

In the five books that followed, she was assigned to investigate murders that related to the power elite. It was a world I knew well. Readers addicted to the series would unfortunately be confused by the sudden change of background but I took the plunge and got few complaints.

A new publisher, founded by an experienced former executive of a major publishing company, decided to take on the series and I consented to move Fiona to his new company. This gave me the opportunity to fix Fiona’s background in the first two books and make her uniformly the daughter of a Senator. I rewrote parts of the first two books to fix this situation and saw in this new publisher a chance for Fiona to go on indefinitely solving murders among the players in the power structure.

Alas, it was not to be. The new publisher went bankrupt before he could launch the full series and I was forced to continue with the original publisher. Thus, in the first two books, Fiona remains the daughter of a New York cop, although in the subsequent books she had been transformed into her new incarnation.

Nevertheless, the movie and TV people continue to pursue the idea of starring Fiona. Two film companies have optioned the Fiona books. NBC has optioned the material twice, once for movie of the week and once for a series. Scripts have been commissioned, including one by yours truly and another prominent television writer, but, so far, she hasn’t found her television or movie legs. Nevertheless the books continue to be in play and there is some optimism that Fiona will once again be on her way to movie or television stardom.

In the meantime there are always the seven books and she has a growing fan club.


Warren Adler is a world-renowned novelist, short story writer and playwright. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages and two of his novels, THE WAR OF THE ROSES and RANDOM HEARTS, have been made into enormously popular movies, shown continually throughout the world. His stage adaptation of the novel THE WAR OF THE ROSES is currently being produced in Italy, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague and countries in Scandinavia.

Mr. Adler is a pioneer in electronic publishing and has acquired his complete backlist and converted this entire library to digital publishing formats. As a novelist, Mr. Adler's themes deal primarily with intimate human relationships—the mysterious nature of love and attraction, the fragile relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, the corrupting power of money, the aging process and how families cling together when challenged by the outside world. Readers and reviewers have cited his books for their insight and wisdom in presenting and deciphering the complexities of contemporary life.

In 2005, Mr. Adler started the Warren Adler Short Story Contest, which has become one of the most prestigious international online short story contests thanks to the extraordinary literary quality of its submissions. The first anthology of contest winners is now available on Amazon.

Today, when not writing, Mr. Adler lectures on creative writing, motion picture adaptation and the future of Electronic Books. He is the founder of the Jackson Hole Writer's Conference and has been Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Jackson Hole Public Library. He is married to the former Sonia Kline, a magazine editor. He has three sons, David, Jonathan and Michael and four grandchildren and lives in New York City.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writers and Books

Seems like the main theme anywhere I look this week is about writers and books. All kinds of books. But my day started off with a wish for a copy of a writers magazine.

I remember an article from Writers Digest and wanted to check it out but of course the magazine is long gone into recycle infinity.

There are a great many magazines out there for writers, online versions, too.

Do you read writers magazines? Do they help you?

I would like to check into some of the great contests they offer on occasion as well, but at the moment the entry fees would probably kill me.

Hope your Thursday flies by!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Three P's of Writing

copyright 2011 Ron Adams

I have had an occasion to witness the turmoil of some writers and publishers when things don’t go according to plan. It was a sad thing to watch, and I am grateful to have maintained good working relationships with all the parties involved. I offer, therefore, some assistance for the new, budding, aspiring, frustrated writer still working on getting their masterpiece into the hands of the readers. Please take it for what it is, and I hope these tips can be of some help. I call these the three P’s of writing.

PROFESSIONAL – First and foremost, writing and writing well is an art form, one which most of us have invested our hearts and souls in. But publishing is a business. It is a for profit enterprise where the writer must learn to become the best business person they can be, and be willing to approach it in a professional manner. Life is not fair, and the business world is not fair, either. Approach every interaction with your agent and editors in a straightforward, respectful, and professional manner, and most of the time it will be returned in kind. Not always, mind you, but you will be better served in that approach in the long run.

POSITIVE- Remain as positive as possible in all your dealings with your agent, editor and publisher. Adopt a can-do/will-do attitude towards all interactions. Be willing to listen to those that may have more expertise, and offer what expertise you can bring in a positive, constructive manner. A problem solver is easier to work with than a problem bringer.

PHILOSOPHICAL – A while back, a friend of mine got me and my wife involved in a network marketing business. Yeah, I know, but I did learn a valuable lesson. They have a philosophy of some-will-some-won’t-so-what in regards to their business. Not the worst approach to take to this business. When going through the process of promotion and building your writing career, listen to those you believe in and trust, listen to the experts, and remember some things will work, some things won’t. So what. Doing is better than not doing, trying is more productive than not trying.

And if I have to add a fourth, it would be PERSEVERANCE. Keep learning, keep growing, and keep believing in yourself and your goals. I can’t promise that any of these will get you on the best-seller list. But I do believe that a positive, professional writer with a philosophical approach, who perseveres in the face of adversity, will be one that agents, editors and publishers will want to work with.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview With Mystery Author Elizabeth Zelvin

Interview by Marta Stephens

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose new mystery, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION, will be out next year. Three of her stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The current nominee, THE GREEN CROSS, is available on her website at Liz blogs on Poe's Deadly Daughters. Please join me in welcoming my friend and mystery author Liz Zelvin back to Murder By 4.

1. Liz, please tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.

I’m a lifelong writer whose first novel came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. Before that, I published two books of poetry, a book on gender and addictions, and many professional articles and book chapters. If I’d become a published novelist at age twenty-four the way I planned, I suspect my writing career would be long over. Life experience is both a tremendous teacher and a great source of stories.

2. Please describe the greatest difficulty you have faced in your writing career, why it was difficult, and how you resolved it.

I think it’s more a matter of intermittent discouragement than one crucial difficulty to be overcome. My husband once observed that my creative process always begins with “I can’t,” and I think he was right on target. I have since discovered that many writers go through this, even some with long, successful careers.

3. Your short story, THE GREEN CROSS, which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last August, has been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Please share with our readers a little about the plot, the characters, the setting, of this story.

The protagonist of “The Green Cross” is Diego, a young marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage. The marranos were Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution but continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret. The Jews were expelled from Spain on pain of death on the exact day that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailed from Spain. In this story, Diego is falsely accused of theft, and Columbus himself turns detective to demonstrate his innocence.

4. What impact would you say completing THE GREEN CROSS and the chance at the Agatha has had on you personally and on your writing?

The character of Diego came to me out of nowhere in the middle of the night and took my writing in a whole new direction. A second story about Diego and Columbus, “Navidad,” also appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I’ve recently completed a Young Adult novel about the second voyage. In the novel, Diego has to get his sister out of Spain one step ahead of the Inquisition. I was able to weave into their adventures the themes of intolerance, being an outsider, and genocide. What Spanish Christianity did to the Jews is paralleled by their treatment of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean whom Columbus encounter, as well as the Moors, the Roma (gypsies), and the Guanche of the Canary Islands. It’s a very different picture of the “discovery” of America that I think young people need to hear.

This is my third nomination for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. It’s a tremendous validation of my work that I’m deeply grateful for. At the same time, winning is not a burning ambition right now—though don’t let it deter you from voting for my story if you’re going to Malice. I’ve come to love the short story form, which allows me to vary the voice and experiment with different subgenres. And “three-time nominee” feels pretty good to me.

5. Liz, you are also a novelist. There are obvious differences in the development of a novel and the development of a short story. Please discuss the steps you take to prepare to go from one to another and any challenges, if any, the transition between the two present.

It’s not quite like that for me—it’s not about planning and preparation or even transition. I start a novel or short story with a germ: with DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, it was the title and wanting to write a mystery about people in recovery. With “The Green Cross,” it was Diego’s voice pounding on the inside of my head, demanding that I tell his story. The decision as to whether it will be a novel or a shorter work is intuitive for me. I have a sense of whether the story I need to tell is compact or complex and discursive. My first few stories, including the other two Agatha-nominated stories, were whodunits about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, the protagonist of my mystery series, and his friends. I remember introducing three suspects and then telling myself, “That’s it.” In a novel, I’d go on creating suspects, throw in a subplot involving personal relationships of the characters, and add a second murder in the middle of the manuscript. That is not to say that I leave anything out in terms of voice or depth of characterization or dialogue, which are my strengths as a writer. I’ve found 3,000 or 4,000 words to be amazingly spacious. With stand-alone short stories, when I arrive at that 4,000 words, or maybe less or a little more, I find I’ve told the story I have to tell and that I’ve said what I had to say about that character.

6. Please give us some insight into your writing process. In other words, did you outline the short story or novel chapters? Did you think about the plot for a while before writing it? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?

I’ve already answered parts of this question. I’m an into-the-mist writer. I don’t outline, but ideas for scenes or passages of dialogue or narrative in my character’s voice may come to me at any time—when I’m running in the park, driving, or in the shower—and I write them down. I end up with a lot of post-it notes starting with “maybe”.

As to plot, it depends. The first time, I knew the ending before I got there because I submitted the first 3,000 words to a competition that asked for a synopsis. With the third novel in the series, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION (coming next year), I already knew my protagonist, Bruce, and his sidekicks, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, well enough for them to start wisecracking in my head. I knew the setting, a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. I started with a victim and then populated the story with suspects, witnesses, and detectives. The backbone of the Columbus novel is the historical timeline, the events that actually happened and the characters known to history. Then I had to weave in the adventures of my fictional characters, making them up as I went along.

My short stories have usually come in two fell swoops. I get the idea, I start to write, I set the whole thing up—and then I realize I have no idea how to resolve it. I let it cook for a while, and the second half will come to me, including that crucial twist at the end.

The main thing about the first sentence is to park my butt on the chair, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write it. I could take notes forever, but the process starts for real as soon as I’m mysteriously willing to begin telling the story in the narrative voice.

7. How much and/or what kind of research do you do prior to writing?

I avoided research until I started writing about Columbus. In fact, I tried to shut Diego up and not tell his story simply because it involved research. But he insisted. I researched “The Green Cross” very lightly. I found parts of Columbus’s actual journal of the first voyage online in English, which was pretty amazing. And I looked at Wikipedia, which everyone says is unreliable, but I had to learn it the hard way. I made at least one mistake in “The Green Cross.” I put horses on the Santa Maria, when in reality, the Spaniards didn’t bring horses until the second voyage. But for the second story and the novel, I did a lot of homework. There are a limited number of primary sources, and I found that the historians whose books I read tended to believe the parts they wanted to believe. This meant they disagreed about almost everything. I ended up finding the historical part and its contradictions fascinating. For material that didn’t relate directly to Columbus and what happened, I found an abundance of material on the Internet, such as detailed descriptions of the Inquisition and Seville in the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as websites not only about but by the Roma and the descendants of the Taino, who are trying to reconstruct their language and culture. Except for reading the major history books that covered the period I write about, I do my research during the writing rather than before. I don’t know what I’m going to need until I reach something I need to describe and know nothing about. Thank heaven for the Internet! I also checked the online dictionary frequently to make sure I didn’t use a word that wasn’t in use by 1492.

8. What do you find the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?

LOL. Doing it! I’m one of these “I love having written” writers. The first draft is the part that’s torture, because I’m making it up as I go. I don’t mind editing, because I learned it at my mother’s knee—and I’ve been developing the skills of editing fiction, which is another matter, over the past few years. On the other hand, when I started with historical events, I found the first draft, especially of the novel when some staggeringly dramatic things really happened, flowed out of me a lot more easily.

I guess I have a few tricks to overcome the desire not to write. I have a few mantras, like “Just keep telling the story” and “I’m going to write for an hour if it takes all day.” I may give myself a goal of 1,000 words. Sometimes I feel stuck at 500 or 700 and push myself through it, just keep writing, and find I’ve written 1,500 or 1,700—or even 2,800 words.

I don’t show anyone the first draft until it’s complete and revised and ready for critique. And I try not to get hung up on editing the first draft as I go along. My goal is to get the whole story out there, to get to the end before I start thinking about what I need to do to make it as good as possible.

9. How do you balance your time to make time for writing?

I’m lucky in that in my “other hat,” I’m a therapist who works with clients online. So I’m at the computer all day, and I can shift back and forth as needed between writing, having a session via chat or email with a client, or doing the endless networking and promoting that are the business side of being a writer today. And I can do all of it in my jammies if I want to, which is a big plus.

10. Who has been the greatest influence on you with respect to encouraging you to write and become a published author?

Going way back to childhood, the books that made me want to be a writer are LITTLE WOMEN, L.M. Montgomery’s EMILY OF NEW MOON, and Anne Frank’s diary. But in this incarnation as a mystery writer, I have to credit Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter, which has been an endless source of information and support.

11. What are you working on now?

With DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION coming out next year and the YA Columbus novel making the rounds, I’m tooling up for promoting the mystery and networking in the children’s literature community, which is new to me. I wrote and published a lot of stories in 2010 (including “The Green Cross”), and I hope more come to me this year. If the Columbus novel sells, I’ll start researching a sequel that I already have a few ideas about. And I’m working on a CD of my own songs, titled OUTRAGEOUS OLDER WOMAN.

12. Any words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Don’t try to do it alone! Join MWA and Sisters in Crime. Join Guppies. Get critique, and get used to making revisions. Don’t send your work out in the first flush of completing the first draft. That’s another one I had to learn the hard way. Develop the ability to “kill your darlings.” And remember that breaking in takes talent, persistence, and luck, and your part is persistence, persistence, persistence.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Read an eBook Week: an experiment

copyright aplazar, 2011

Have you ever considered listing your eBooks for free?

Some writers might react viscerally to this suggestion, horrified by the idea of giving away the product of their hard earned work. I do understand that, having put in countless hours over the past fourteen years writing my own fifteen books. I probably would have felt that way in the beginning, too, we had had the option. But over the past years I've learned that giving away freebies is a great way to invest in future sales. Especially when they're eBooks, which require a much lower cash investment.

I've purchased my own print books since Double Forte' came out in 2004, and I frequently give away 50-100 copies of each title to reviewers, folks I happen to meet who love to read, or if I'm just feeling generous throughout the course of the year. For example, yesterday I mailed a whole set of my print books to the local radio show for their annual auction, another set to a local charity who expressed interest in a possible book signing at their event next year, and one copy to a young friend of my daughter's whose mom just passed away. She's a sweet girl who's having a very tough time dealing with her awful loss. She also has no family left, and we're trying to bring her into the fold. (she came to my birthday party this week.)

But I digress.

I usually find that when I've given away one book, almost everyone comes back, wanting the rest in the series. So, I've seen this "invest in your future by giving away samples" theory work on a small scale.

Over the past year, as I've transitioned from my prior distrust/dislike of eBooks to becoming their most enthusiastic fan, I've learned a lot. My wife and I have fallen in love with the Kindle, and I read books on my iPhone and laptop all the time now.

I've read about other authors who have made substantial sales by giving away or selling their eBooks for very cheap prices. (J.A. Konrath, for example. He's been very generous to share his story with writers, and I've learned a great deal by reading his accounts.)

The idea behind the strategy is this: Who's going to buy the book of a complete stranger for $16.95, unless they've met you (online or otherwise) or have somehow bumped into your book? Why would they necessarily take a chance on you? Or even have a chance to hear about you? But -  if they can get your book for free, there is absolutely no risk on their part. If they do like the book, they'll frequently come back for more, especially if you're writing a series.

There are a gajillion services out there now that troll places like Amazon looking for new "free" eBook deals. They send daily digests to enormous distributions. So, if you can get your book up there on that free list, chances are you'll get a ton of folks downloading your work.

We recently had a chance to experiment with this during Read an eBook week. My publisher, Lida Quillen, offered a few eBooks for free on her website, Twilight Times Books, in honor of the special week. She chose to offer Tremolo: cry of the loon from my of books. I'd been discussing this with her for about six months, hoping to find a good chance to experiment with the concept.

Apparently, an Amazon algorithm picked up on the freebies on our Twilight Times Books website, and they listed the books for free on Amazon. Around March 10th, emailers started sending out updates to their subscribers. All three of the TTB books started climbing up the charts, until most were in the top ten for days.

This continued. Tremolo bounced around from #1 to #2 for about five days. I took screen shots. ;o)

This is a shot from the Amazon Kindle store, their bestsellers list in contemporary fiction. Around March 15th, Amazon changed the price on our free book to $2.75. We don't know why this happened, but it did. Suddenly, we started selling Tremolo, both eBooks and print (but mostly eBooks). We knew folks were were downloading tons for free before that, but for some reason, they started buying them. I believe it's because the book remained on the free list for several days.
Now get this. Publishers only receive 30% of the $2.75 price from Amazon, and I get half of that, so we didn't make tons of money like one might have expected. (if you list for $2.99 or over you get 70% of the price). Anyway, I've been charting it. We switched from $2.75 to $2.99 recently, and sales are still going, but slowing down a bit. (the bars are cumulative sales, and the line is sales rank on contemporary fiction, see the scale on the right for this series.)

I can't wait to do another trial of this. Of course, both my publisher and I did a whole week's worth of blogging and mass correspondence to let everyone we could think of take advantage of the freebie. We worked very hard behind the scenes. Next, we're thinking of offering Mazurka for free the month leading up to FireSong's release in July. I'm excited about the possibilities, and hoping it works out the same way.

(Has anyone else had experience with this? I'd love to hear from publishers who list their books for free with Amazon, because so far we haven't found an option to purposefully put our books up on Amazon for less than 99 cents. Any info would be appreciated!)

Well, it's time to get back to writing. Hope you all have a great Sunday, and remember... take pleasure in the simple things...

- Aaron

Friday, March 18, 2011

Interview With Author, Barbara Levenson

Barbara Levenson, Author of Fatal February
Interviewed by Marta Stephens

It's a pleasure to welcome Barbara Levenson to Murder By 4 again! Levenson is a cum laude graduate of the University of Miami Law School, and has resided in Miami, Florida, for the past 35 years. Barbara has served as a prosecutor, and run her own law practice where she focused on criminal defense and civil rights litigation. Barbara was elected to a judgeship in the circuit court of Miami-Dade County where she still serves as senior judge. Barbara is the author of the Mary Magruder Katz mystery series, which includes Fatal February and Justice in June, both of which are published by Oceanview Publishing.

1. Barbara, please tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.

I have had many careers. As a young mother, I was the first woman to run for the Columbus, Ohio Board of Education and the first woman to serve as its president. As a result of my work on the board, I was the first woman to receive the Ohio Newspaper “Man of the Year” award.

When my husband’s job took us to Miami, Florida, I fulfilled a dream and attended law school at the University of Miami School of Law. My friends said “Law school is hard and you have two children. How will you manage?” I managed to graduate cum laude, and went on to work as a prosecutor during the time that Janet Reno was the Dade County State Attorney. A few years later I opened my own law office and in 1992, I was elected as a judge in the circuit court. When I retired from the bench, I finally had time to pursue my other dream, to write fiction. I started by writing short stories and taking classes in the Miami Literary Arts Center. I was accepted in the Kenyon College summer writing program in Ohio. Then I really began to write in earnest, spending four days a week doing nothing but writing and soon I had my first mystery novel ready to shop. I was very fortunate to sell that novel and the second in the series to Oceanview Publishing after meeting them at Sleuthfest.

2. Describe the greatest difficulty you have faced in your writing career, why it was difficult and how you resolved it.

My greatest difficulty is in balancing the time necessary to publicize my books and still have time to write. I had no idea that once I was published, my life would be consumed with book signings, answering e-mails, traveling to speaking dates, etc. In short, doing everything but writing. I still haven’t found a practical way to balance these demands. In fact, they seem to be growing. Other authors have counseled me to save time, no matter what, to keep writing. I hope that as I become more experienced and better known that I will achieve this balance.

3. What prompted you to write Fatal February and what do you hope your readers will get from it?

I have always loved mysteries, so I wanted to write what I love to read. Second, I have lived in Miami for 35 years and love this city, so I wanted readers to come to know the real Miami, not the South Beach tourist scene; the real place where we go to work, raise kids, have family problems, and new romances. February is the loveliest month here with sparkling sun, cool nights, everything in bloom, outdoor art shows and concerts. I hoped that readers in cold climates would feel that they had taken a little tropical vacation and would feel that they had actually visited this locale. I also wanted to highlight the problems of a young professional woman, striving for a successful career and hoping for that special someone to come into her life. Having spent a lot of my life in criminal court, I wanted readers to experience the feel of the court system without lapsing into “legalese”. Justice In June does even more to make readers understand the working of the courts. My second novel takes place in June to show readers the worst month in Miami with steamy rain every day, and a build- up of humidity that makes every day a bad hair day.

4. You are a longtime Miami judge and the protagonist in your series, Mary Magruder Katz, is a criminal defense attorney. Who or what influenced you in the development of this character?

I was a criminal defense attorney myself with my own small law office, so I know the joy of helping clients and the angst of the reality that you can’t win every case. As a judge, I mentored young women attorneys and heard their problems. Both of these things made it easy to fashion a believable protagonist

5. Please share with our readers a little about the plot and the characters of this novel.

The plot concerns Mary’s client, Lillian Yarmouth who is accused of stabbing her husband to death with an antique silver letter opener. Lillian is a society matron, a wealthy, part of “old Miami”. Her husband was a philanderer. He came to Miami to play football. He was poor but handsome. She was rich. Miami has had many society high profile murders. The secondary plot involves Mary and her new hot Latin lover, Carlos Martin. Mary is half Jewish and half Southern Baptist. Carlos is half Cuban and half Argentine. They are typical of the melting pot that is Miami. Along the way we meet each of their parents, Mary’s new paralegal, a cast of courthouse characters and cousins of Carlos. Mary also has a German Shepherd who gets into a lot of doggy troubles.

6. Please give us some insights into your writing process.
I think about the plot and characters a lot before I write. I usually have the basics of the story in my head. I don’t outline before beginning, but during the writing, I sometimes outline the next few chapters. No particular steps. I just sit down at the computer and pound away.

I always write on a computer and I have a writing room in the house in Miami and in our summer house in Vermont. I’d like to say that no one bothers me in my writing room, but it wouldn’t be true. Whoever is in the house manages to come in and tell me something. I don’t answer phone calls when I am writing. I always have one of my German Shepherds in the room with me, usually napping or occasionally throwing a ball in my lap.

7. How much and/or what kind of research do you do prior to writing?

Much of what I write in this mystery series is in my head. I do put away newspaper articles that I think will be useful in future books. Occasionally I look back at notes I have kept from a variety of cases.

8. What do you find is the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?

Remembering the names of all the characters, so I keep running lists. I’m not kidding! I never have what people call writer’s block. That’s probably because I like to talk. My friends and spouse say I’m never at a loss for words.

9. Who has been the greatest influence on you, encouraging you to write and be published?

My husband. He has encouraged me to try all of my varied careers. His absolute faith in my ability to do whatever I undertake has given me confidence and allowed me to indulge my dreams.

10. What are you working on now?

I just finished my third novel, Outrageous October, and am starting my fourth, Neurotic November. I also have notes for a more serious, literary novel that I hope to begin shortly.

11. Any words of wisdom and advice for aspiring writers?

The number one bit of advice I received from a writing teacher was this: "If you want to write, put your behind in the chair and write.” The more you write, the better you get at it. I like to read what I write out loud every couple of days. If it doesn’t sound right, then it probably isn’t.

When you are ready to shop your book, go to as many seminars, conferences and meetings as you can afford. The more you make connections and network, the better your chances of finding the right agent or publisher.

Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Word for the Day

How does the current situation in the world *esp. Japan* affect your writing?

Do you feel like there is crushing defeat ahead of you based on past information coming out of NY publishing?

Have you gotten more rejections than interest?

These questions are asked for a reason. The word for the day is "unwavering" and it came to me as I washed my face a few days ago.

When the world is shocked and confounded because of a natural disaster, or when there is no good news in the writing world, or if our own personal existence is being completely ignored by agents, we have a tendency to become a little unsettled.

But today, unwavering is what I am trying to focus on. Here is what the dictionary says about it :


Indicating or possessing determination, resolution, or persistence: constant, determined, firm1, resolute, steadfast, steady, stiff, tough, unbending, uncompromising, unflinching, unyielding. See purpose/purposelessness.

Does that describe you as a writer in these uncertain times? I hope so. I hope it will be the one word we can use in reference to ourselves today and in days to come. When everything goes to heck in a hickory basket, we have to stand firm in our resolve to succeed.

I hope I have encouraged you! Now, go out and write!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mickey Spillane Quote

© Marta Stephens 2011 all rights reserved

"Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."
~ Mickey Spillane

I have a collection of favorite quotes, but every once in a while I come across one that truly speaks to me. This one, by the late Mickey Spillane, does just that.

As writers, we're constantly working on crafting that WOW opening line, that great first scene that grabs the reader and holds him to the seat of his chair. We work so hard on characterization, imagery and dialogue, but how much effort do we really put into our endings? Are they carefully planned or do we just wait to see what happens?

Sadly, by the time I get to the middle of some books, the plot has  already begun to sag and when I get to the last few chapters, I'm speed reading to get to the ending as fast as the author has rushed to type, "The End."

Several years ago I read a wonderful novel. The characters came to life from the first words in chapter one, the plot held my interest, and the author's writing was brilliant.

A murder had taken place and the writer had developed a nice bit of suspense, but in the last chapter the killer volunteered a confession and explained how he had managed the crime.  I was so frustrated, that I flipped back through the chapters to see if I'd actually missed the clues. Instead, I found that none of the clues had ever been mentioned or unveiled for the me, the reader, to sift through. Needless to say, I've never read that author's work again.

On the other hand, how wonderful to read a novel with an ending that takes my breath away and makes me rush to grab the author's next book.

That, I believe, is what Mr. Spillane suggest we strive for.

About the author:
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. She is currently working on the third book in her Sam Harper Crime Mystery series.

Her books are available in paperback and e-book and Kindle formats.
THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008), Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards, Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
ISBN: 978-1-905202-886-7
Tradebook: $15.99
E-book: $9.00

SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
ISBN: 798-1-905202-72-0
Tradebook: $15.50
E-book: $9.00

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to Break the Rules

copyright 2011 Ron Adams
As with everything in life, there are rules to writing a good mystery. They are very good guidelines, but, as they say some rules are made to be broken. Or to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, it is important to understand the rules in order to break them. So, according to people much brighter than I, these are the rules (and my suggestions for working around them):
1) The reader should have the same opportunity as the Hero to solve the crime.
2) No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it is also done to the Hero by the criminal. (Let’s face it, Gang, we all know some pretty tricky criminals, don’t we?)
3) The Hero should not have a love interest. (Here I disagree. I think the Hero/hero could be well served to have a love interest. It brings out another aspect of the character, how they deal with a lover while investigating the crime, and the conflicts that arise as a result of his/her involvement in the case. I immediately think of Spenser and Susan Silverman, Temperance Brennan and Andrew Ryan, and Stephanie Plum and…you get the idea.)
4) Neither the Hero nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal. (Again, I disagree. I think it can make for a really interesting twist to have one of the chief investigators working with the hero turn out to be hampering the case. It has to be handled carefully, but I believe it can be done.)
5) The villain must be found by logical deduction, not luck, accident, or un-motivated confessions. (Hard and fast commandment here.)
6) It must be a murder mystery. (The murder may not have to happen right away, but someone important has got to die.)
7) The solution must come by "naturalistic means.” (This means no divine intervention/inspiration.)
8) There can be only one Hero, not a team. (Where would Spenser be without Hawk? Nick Charles without Nora? Sherlock Holmes without Watson? Teams can work if handled properly, especially when each member has a unique POV.)
9) The villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story. After all, he/she is at least as important as the Hero, right?
10) The culprit can't be a servant. (But then again, a disgruntled employee…)
11) There can only be one murderer. The villain could have a helper or "co-plotter," but only one is going to get the ax in the matter. (Consider this: the helper could wind up taking the ax for real murderer. Puts a slightly different twist on the story, and could set up a darker ending.)
12) No secret societies ("mafias, et al"). The murderer, too, needs a sporting chance to outwit the Hero. The villain may belong to a cult, a sect, or other shadowy type of group. But in the end, it is the individual, not the group, that is the real culprit.
13) The method of the murder must not be beyond plausibility. No super-natural means, nor the introduction of a fictional device or element. (Realism is the key here, but so is creativity within the framework of reality.)
15) The truth of the solution must be apparent. The reader should be able to pick the book upon completion and see that the answer was in fact staring at him all the time.
16) The culprit must be an amateur, not a professional criminal. (Just a minute. Why can’t the Hero be involved in bringing down a hitman, for example, or even an organized crime boss? The Hero may have more freedom to maneuver than the regular police.)
17) The solution must never be an accident or suicide. That’s just lazy and it cheats the reader.
18) Motives for the crime must be personal, not political or professional. ( Why? I have read more than my share of stories about ideologues taking their views to the extreme. Why not have the Hero track down one of these deluded individuals before they can kill again?)
19) All of the following tricks and devices are verboten. They've been done to death or are otherwise unfair.
a) Comparing a cigarette butt with the suspect's cigarette.
b) Using a séance to frighten the culprit into revealing himself.
c) Using phony fingerprints.
d) Using a dummy figure to establish a false alibi.
e) Learning that the culprit was familiar because the dog didn't bark.
f) Having "the twin" do it.
g) Using knockout drops.
h) If the murder is in a locked room, it has to be done before the police have actually broken in.
i) Using a word-association test for guilt.
j) Having the solution in a coded message that takes the Hero until the end of book to figure out.
These are just my ideas on how to bend the accepted rules for mystery writing. Now, go ahead, have some fun, and commit your own crimes against society and literature. I’m no stool pigeon.