15 November

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Included within is a retro take on a classic TV show, an eclipse, garden news, a timely featured blog post, baseball, and The African Queen.

A look back at: Murder She Wrote

It was the 1980s, so the haircuts are embarrassing, but the show was cozy mystery at its finest. 

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher

The main character, Jessica Fletcher, is a mystery writer. She likes to write at her kitchen table, so we have something in common. Preferring a quiet home life, she nevertheless gets tangled up in murders both in Cabot Cove and on her travels to publicize her books. One of her zillions of nieces and nephews, or a close friend, are usually accused. This means she must to step in and find the real killer, often at some danger to herself. 

Although Jessica Fletcher is much younger than Rosie McMahon, the 72-year-old protagonist in my upcoming beach cozy, they have in common a determination to get to the truth, a puzzle-solving intelligence, and a useful relationship with a gentleman friend (Seth the doctor in Murder She Wrote, reporter Lou in my cozy).

What is a cozy? Most people think of books with brightly illustrated covers, a quirky female sleuth, and some form of hobby or business that’s based in domesticity but requires specialist knowledge: catering, quilting, etc. Certainly cozies are supposed to have no explicit sex or violence. I’ve gone back and forth on whether my Victorian mysteries are cozies.

They contain nothing gruesome or explicit. They have some humor and lightness, certainly, but there are important themes riding beneath. One reader said to me, “Well, they make me feel cozy when I’m done reading them!” So I’ll keep the cozy designation and wear it with pride.

Garden news

As promised, here’s what’s up in the Grousable Garden. 

Little Petunia the possum disappeared for awhile. When she returned she was so much bigger I had trouble recognizing her. But the big dark triangle on her forehead gave her away. She’s the size of a cat now, and still a little timid when others are around.

Petunia the possum

Panda 3 is a regular now, and she’s hungry. Judging by the waddle and her very slow walk, I am pretty sure she has a pouch full of joeys. And in case you’re worried that the garden will be overrun with possums, only Petunia remains from Cassie’s litter, and Cassie herself only occasionally comes around. Being a possum is a tough life with cars, coyotes, and dogs just waiting for you to come out from hiding. 

Flower-wise, I have a very confused German iris, blooming in autumn. They’ve been pretty successful in my sandy, alkaline, So Cal garden and I’m happy about that. Veggies didn’t go well. The tomatoes pretty much came to nothing, and my gardening neighbors blame the weather. And allow me to present to you the entire watermelon crop.

Well, as they say in baseball, there’s always next season.

An eclipse

Back on October 14, we had a partial solar eclipse in this part of the country. I got a picture through a telescope. 

Partial solar eclipse on October 14

Alexander the Great was on the eve of battle in Mesopotamia, traveling with his entourage of soldiers, scholars, and priests. A lunar eclipse occurred, and the moon glowed red. Many of his followers became fearful. What kind of omen was this? The quick-thinking Alexander said it was a sign that they were going to eclipse the Persians in the war. 

I can think of a couple of baseball teams that could have used that interpretation as they headed (or not) to the playoffs.

Featured blog post

It’s not Victorian, nor H. G. Wells, nor about writing fiction, but if you’re interested in the historical roots of today’s Middle Eastern conflict, check out my history blog post.

WWI movies

In keeping with events surrounding the First World War (1914-1918), we’ve just celebrated Armistice Day (known as Veterans’ Day in the U.S.). I notice that in Britain, commemorations are deeply felt and widely understood. In America, the war seems longer ago than it does in the U.K. This is likely because the U.S. participated for a much shorter time, arriving only in 1917.

The Great War, they called it then. That’s wasn’t because it was super, but because so many European countries were involved. And because many of them had colonies, all of their colonies were involved, too, making it a global war. 

There are many WWI movies I could recommend, but I’m going to speak for the 1951 John Huston film The African Queen. It takes place at the beginning of the war, in German East Africa. The plot involves a missionary (Katherine Hepburn) and a Canadian who pilots a supply boat (Humphrey Bogart). Although imperfectly based on E.M. Forster’s book, and the events that inspired it, the film holds its own. 

The African Queen ad

Why mention it in an author newsletter? Because the two main characters are the focus of the film as they try to open up the supply route by torpedoing a large German gunboat. Two people against the opposing navy, overcoming the challenges of their dodgy little boat, the tropical heat, and the enemy being nasty. Their relationship develops as they attempt an impossible task fighting for their side. Sure, it’s a romance, but it’s also the little guys against the big guys. A classic story that still manages to give the sense of  a war at the human level, fought in isolated places around the globe. 

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read my blog posts on historical research and writing? They’re here.

Until next time, keep grousing!

1 November 2023

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This newsletter introduces some older detectives, Paperback Alley in Escondido, and the recent edits of my beach cozy. A big welcome to all new subscribers!

Hurrah for older protagonists

I’ve been enjoying the very lively characters in Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series – I’m almost done with The Bullet That Missed. If you haven’t read these, do yourself a favor. The mysteries are solved by four friends who live in a retirement community and have very different backgrounds, creating a solid team. They meet in the Jigsaw room and have to get out on time to make way for the Conversational French classes. 

Osman’s writing is a master class in witty sentences and smooth cultural references. 

In some ways, the series reminds me of others where older sleuths are featured, in particular New Tricks, a British television show that ran from 2005-2013. 

A police superintendant, recently shamed for a botched job, is given charge of a division that solves cold cases. With few resources, she hires three former police officers all in their later years. Each has particular talents.

Stories with older people are fun because although modern times may challenged old-fashioned ideas. there is usually a theme of wisdom triumphing over youthful enthusiasm. Not always, of course!

Fun in Escondido, more coming November 19

I promised a photo so here it is:

I have no idea why I am leaning so much! Perhaps getting up at 6 am had something to do with it.

These indie authors are, left to right, Jolie Tunnell (author of the Idyllwild Mysteries), Pat Spencer, me, Nancy Mae Johnson, and Celeste Barclay. Next stop will be a Grousable Bookshop booth at the Encinitas Holiday Street Fair on November 19!

Edits on the beach cozy

The beach cozy has gone to my editor. I’m still waffling on the title, but at the moment I’m leaning toward Bummer at Luna Beach because it’s just different, and dead bodies are certainly a bummer. Like all my work, the book contains some serious themes in an amusing story. There are jabs at gentrification and beach towns sacrificing character to money-making, for example.

Sending a book in to an editor is always a bit scary, kind of like submitting a term paper. Will it come back all covered with red ink? The difference is, if it does, I can fix it before a grade is assigned. The moment it was sent, of course, I thought of an explanation I needed to add to Chapter 1.

Photo: Nic McPhee at Flickr

After editing, I will revise again and give it to a couple of beta readers. Will I be looking for Advanced Review Copy readers? You bet I will! I’d love an ARC team of folks willing to read and publicize on social media. Stay tuned in the next newsletter if you’re interested.

The Hours

I am currently reading The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. It turns out I somehow bought two copies, with two different covers. One has a dark illustration, and the other is this:

Obviously it’s been made into a movie (2002 — good heavens, that’s over 20 years ago!). I wanted to read the book (1998) first. The prose is extraordinary, literary fiction with some close shadowing of Virginia Woolf’s style (and using her character name/situation from Mrs. Dalloway). When I picked it up, with the other cover, I didn’t know when it was published, that there was a movie, or that I already had a copy. All I knew when I read the first few pages was that I was going to like it. 

But it does make me want to read Mrs. Dalloway again.

And more

No room for a garden report this time, sorry. Next time, I hope! 

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books. You can post comments there too.
  • Want to read my blog posts on historical research and writing? They’re here.

Until next time, keep grousing!

15 October 2023

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A faster romance

Well, ok, the romance itself isn’t any faster, but obtaining a paperback book is! I’ve allowed Amazon to print its own version of A Heart Purloined. After checking the quality closely, I went ahead and listed it on their site.

What does this mean? That it will get to readers much faster, because Amazon controls the printing. None of that “will be delivered in 2-3 weeks” nonsense.

Book and ebook of A Heart Purloined

Now if you’re not sure about romance (I certainly wasn’t!), let’s be clear: it’s a “clean” story with no explicit sex, but it’s humorous. In places it’s more like a screwball comedy set in Victorian England than a romantic novel. Our heroine is confident and she swears like a truck-driver. Our hero is no gentleman, and tends to rob people. So when they fall in love, it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient for sure. 

That beach cozy

I’m 97% sure I’m going with “Bummer at Luna Beach” for the title. I hope that doesn’t make it sound like a comedy from the 1990s. It’s close, but it’s set in the fictitious surfing town of San Benno, California in 2004. You don’t suppose I could call it “historical” fiction?

A beach town kind of like the one in my upcoming book

Photo by Don Graham at Flickr

The first draft is done (I figured out whodunnit!), so the book is now in revisions and then it goes off to the editor to make sure it doesn’t read like the back of a cereal box. Releasing a beach cozy in winter seems odd, so it will likely be available in spring. I hope to have a launch party in a beach town!

Internet Joy

Doing research for writing a novel is made so much easier with the internet. Back in the day, one went to the library a lot, and the reference librarian knew what you were working on and helped you find stuff. Some materials would be in the library, but some would come in by teletype (yes, really) or fax or photocopy and snail mail. 

But these days? I can think about a way to kill a character, and I want it to be poison. I’ve heard that yew trees are poisonous, so I start googling around and find out that yes, they are. The leaves and seeds are the most toxic, and the leaves are at their strongest toxicity in the winter (it’s an evergreen). 

a yew tree

I also discover that yew, particularly the Pacific variety, is the basis of Taxol, the anti-cancer drug. So I wonder when that substance was isolated, and could it possibly be during the Victorian era? Yes! I keep seeing references to someone named Lucas. More searching, and find a book citing his book from 1856, then finally I land on the book itself in Google Books, but the article is in German.

I paste it passage by passage into Google Translate, and I’ve got the article, with a few odd colloquialisms Translate couldn’t translate. But now I know not only how Lucas got interested in yew (dead sheep) but what chemicals he used to isolate what he called taxane, and the further experiments he suggested. One of these would lead to the Pacific yew and Taxol. And I did all that sitting on the sofa.

Library Showcase

The internet, of course, cannot replace the library. I’ve mentioned before I spent much of my childhood in the library, shelf browsing the books. These days, that’s so much harder. “Search” on a computer is not the same as “browse”, no matter what they may say. Browsing is something you do looking at books near each other on the shelves, or flipping through the card catalog. There’s a lot of serendipity involved, and the knowledge needed to participate is small. But our librarians are as important as ever in teaching us how to find things. 

Local author program at the San Diego Public Library - books galore!

For the second year, one of my books has been accepted for the San Diego Public Library Local Author Showcase. The event invites authors to display their books at the library, and allows checkouts. The most popular books become part of the library’s permanent collection. Last year, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s was purchased as an e-book for the catalog, so this year of course I submitted Murder at an Exhibition

Paperback Alley

Today’s the day for the Escondido Grand Avenue Festival street fair, and I’ll be there at Paperback Alley selling books. Photos next time!

And more!

  • Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books.
  • Want to read previous blog posts on historical research and writing? They’re here.
  • Want to talk about what’s in my newsletters? I think I’ve fixed the Comment function on the website, so you should be able to comment now on this newsletter. If you can’t, I’ll fix it (she said with the utmost confidence).

Until next time, keep grousing!

1 October 2023

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Guesting with Alexia Gordon

I’ve been wanting to guest on Alexia Gordon’s Cozy Corner podcast for awhile now, and I was lucky enough to have the chance at Bouchercon.

Cozy Corner Podcast

She’s such a good interviewer, and it was so much fun talking with her. Take a listen at Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Mystery Movies

While I find Kenneth Branagh’s new Agatha Christie adaptations artistic and contemporary, I admit that I prefer the older versions. So in this newsletter I feature Death on the Nile (1978).

The cast is exquisite. Mia Farrow is the mentally unstable woman who loses her fiancé Simon to her friend, played by the stunning Lois Chiles.  Angela Lansbury as the colorful novelist I’ve always wanted to be, George Kennedy and Sam Wanamaker (benefactor of the new Old Globe in London) play the American uncle and financier, Bette Davis is the wealthy Mrs. Van Schuyler – what more could you want? How about Jack Warden, Maggie Smith, Olivia Hussey, Jane Birkin, Jon Finch, and David Niven? They just don’t make casts like this anymore.

Copyright Parade

Oh, did I forget someone? Hercules Poirot himself, played by Peter Ustinov. No, he doesn’t look like the diminutive Belgian detective described in the books. Rather, he makes the role his own with his comedic skills, and played Poirot multiple times in other films. 

Anthony Shaffer wrote the script, and at the time he’d already written Murder on the Orient Express, Sleuth, and Frenzy. The director was John Guillermin, whose reputation for his on-set temper is offset by his getting the best from his actors on action-adventure films. Worth a view? You bet.

Warning: viewers sensitive to caricatures/objectionable portrayals of French, Belgian, Indian, elderly, or sexually intemperate characters might not enjoy the film as much.

Trying for a hardback

Creating a hardcover version for Murder at Old St. Thomas’s was more fraught then I expected. At first I went with a 6 x 9 inch size. I wanted a cloth book with a dust cover, because to me that says “book”.

Well, cloth covers aren’t affordable, and aren’t available to the independently published. Instead, you may have a book with a laminate cover (plain or printed with the cover, which reminds me of textbooks) or a book with a laminate cover that is printed with a cloth pattern.

I like real things, not ruses and substitutes. It’s like using veneer when you want solid wood, or pasting thin brick singles over cement block. But there’s no accounting for the costs, so I went with the faux “cloth” and cover, as I had for Before the Time Machine. The proof arrived with the dust cover folded wrong.

This made the cover misaligned. I was able to refold it, but if it were sent to a bookshop, oh dear!

I’m afraid 6 x 9 just felt like the wrong size, too. It’s just got to feel right, I think. So I’m going with 5.5 x 8.5, which doesn’t seem like a big difference but looks and feels so much better. Should be available in plenty of time for holiday gifting. 🙂

Featured blog posts

There are two this time!

First, are the half-dozen or so things I learned about writing mysteries at Bouchercon.

My non-fiction work centers around H. G. Wells, whom I have been studying for several years. My particular interest is in education, both his own and the type he hoped would be provided for humanity. In his autobiography, he claimed to have been afraid of a gorilla drawn in a particular book, so of course I had to find it

October giveaway and links

If you didn’t get a chance to download a free e-copy of my short story “The Dancing Colonel”, there’s another opportunity through the Historical Crime and Mystery Giveaway.

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books.

Want to read previous blog posts? They’re here

Until next time, keep grousing!

 

Grousable Books Newsletter: September 15

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Bouchercon

Named after mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher, Bouchercon is the a huge convention of mystery writers and readers. This was my first time, and it was fantastic. Mystery folks are the friendliest and nicest people. Why? I think it’s because all our bad attitudes end up in our books (don’t like someone? kill ’em in print). Could also be a deep sense of justice that doesn’t want other people treated unjustly. 

I had the honor of presenting on a panel about historical mysteries, but although I saw someone taking photos I have no idea where they ended up. So instead here’s a pic of what I got for free or bought in the book room:

stack of books

Everyone (approximately 1500 in attendance) was welcoming to newbies like myself. Famous authors mingled easily with the lesser-knowns, and there was a genuine feeling of support. I got so many ideas!

But just in case you think it was all roses, know also that I:

  • missed all my meals the first day and ate pretzels for dinner, 
  • locked both my keys in my hotel room on the second day,
  • dealt with an uncooperative hotel toilet, 
  • had my blouse slip down and partly expose me at a cocktail party, and
  • left five copies of Murder at an Exhibition at the consignment counter and when I returned they had been stolen.

Then I came home and washed my brand new cloth sunhat and shrunk it to doll size. 

About historical fiction

Inspired by the historical writing methods authors discussed at Bouchercon, I jumped back into journalism this fortnight with an article on Medium. Authors write historical fiction using various processes and sporting various ambitions. Most are somehow aligned with the past, but this isn’t true of everyone. In fact, it was reading so much bad historical fiction that led me to write my own.

To my mind, there are two approaches to historical fiction. One is to focus on a story first, a story that could take place at any time, and just use the past as a colorful setting. I feel this does human history a disservice. Yes, there are stories with universal themes that could take place whenever. But the past is much more than a setting.

In 1953 L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I much prefer Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Bouchercon panel

“Where Do You Start: How Writers Get Their Ideas and Do Their Research” panel: Marcia Talley, Ann Parker, Claire Boyles, Anne Louise Bannon, Gary Bush

Mining the past, using it to discover people, themes, and quotidian concerns gives a historical novel a purpose. The setting, the time and place, becomes a character. Its personality is driven by the story the author chooses to tell. To the people living at that time, they didn’t think they were historical — they are in the present. They would be concerned with the politics, fashions, and ideas of the day the same as we are in the now. They may “do things differently”, but their loves, ambitions, and hatreds are the same motivations. There is no need to hammer away at a “connection” between past and present; it is always there.

Possum report

All the other possums seem to have moved on except Cassie and little Petunia. But there may be more. One eats exactly half of a tomato, as if leaving the other half for me. It’s done so neatly that I’m tempted to leave out a slice of mozzarella cheese and bit of basil to balance their meal.

tomato neatly eaten in half

We have a couple of raccoons who come through the backyard like hoodlums, strutting like in Saturday Night Fever and looking at me through the glass door as if to say, “yeah? wanna make something of it?” I don’t, and they move on. Little flocks of birds come through and stop at the feeder, the Thai basil fights to stay upright after the recent storm, the delphiniums struggle to bloom again, and the zinnias make small segments of the garden look like Disneyland’s It’s a Small World landscaping.

garden flowers

I stuck a grape vine trimming into water and it took, and it’s time to plant sweet peas.

A marvelous bookstore

Verbatim Books in North Park San Diego has been great to work with. They are one of the few bookstores in the area that takes consignment from local authors. They shelve my books, and are happy to have me replace them when they sell. 

Verbatim Books

Of course, since they have so many used books, including some delicious old cloth-bound goodies, I spend money every time I go in. Oh look — the Diana Gabaldon novel about the bees! that Julian Barnes I always wanted to read! a book on Civil War captains published in 1913! My royalties are spent before I get out the door. The folks who run this consignment thing are smart

Rest of September special: 20% off e-books at my shop

What’s up for deals in September? Bouchercon kept me busy, and the free short stories are no longer available, but I’m still on for Authors Selling Direct, where you can buy A Heart Purloined from my Grousable Bookshop.

And just to sweeten the deal, here’s a coupon code for all my books only for my newsletter readers.

For 20% off, use coupon code “september” through the end of the month at my store. It even applies to the Tommy Jones Mystery trilogy!

Links

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books.

Want to read previous blog posts? They’re here

Until next time!

 

Grousable Books Newsletter: September 1

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Literary fiction in hardcover

Whether book readers have been awaiting it or not, I certainly have. My literary novel Before the Time Machine (2021) is finally available in hardcover.

hardcover book: Before the Time Machine

There’s something about literary fiction that seems to require a hardcover version. Maybe it’s the idea that it will be in libraries, or the snob appeal, or just feeling something a little more solid and more permanent in your hand. 

This is the book I had to write, and it was my first published work of fiction.  It’s a dual-timeline novel about a present-day historian researching H. G. Wells, young Wells becoming an author during the 19th century, and the conversation they have across time and space. 

Next up for hardcover: Murder at Old St. Thomas’s.

Garden report

The watermelons dried up after Hilary, the tropic storm that, in this part of California, was not.

Each season something comes to the garden that’s new. I like fig beetles. They’re kinda funny. Last year a few came to drink the juice from the grapes, and ruined a couple of figs. Fig beetles fly with faulty air traffic control systems, bumping into things. I’ve had them bump into my face, and I just saw one bump into a Mourning Cloak butterfly (called the much more lyrical Camberwell Beauty in the UK).  They’re the bumper cars of the natural world.

But this year, they held a bumper car convention in my grapes. I didn’t know. I didn’t see. I failed to notice that some of my green grapes weren’t grapes, that half of the clusters were beetles. They were so quiet about it. I’m afraid there will be no Grousable Jam this year. 

I had to cut down the clusters, because they’d split and it smelled like a winery. The clusters were dropping grapes all over the deck.

I won’t say it was fun, but it was surreal, being surrounded by peckish and angry beetles as I closed the bar at Happy Hour. 

So instead of worrying about grapes, I wrote a poem.

Authors Selling Direct

I join a lot of promotions hoping to find new readers, but this one on Book Funnel (Sept 1-18) is particularly interesting because authors couldn’t get in without having their own online “shop”. The idea is to promote authors who sell through their own websites rather than (or in addition to) a retailer (Amazon, Waterstones, etc.). I only recently opened the Grousable Bookshop at my website. 

Authors Selling Direct with picture of book

What’s the difference? When you order from an online retailer, the retailer takes a significant cut, even of e-books. When you buy direct from the author, there is no middleman. The author does have costs, including the fee to use whatever system is taking the payment, but they’re much lower. 

Having chosen my historical mystery romance, A Heart Purloined, for this promotion, it was fun to see the other books alongside it. Take a look at the Authors Selling Direct page and you’ll see what I mean!

Free short story: Murder Steampunk Style

It’s the last chance to download my contemporary mystery short story e-book for free before the end of Bouchercon on September 3, only two days away! So hurry on over to BookFunnel and grab a copy before it’s too late!

Murder Steampunk Style cover of book

This was the story I originally wrote for this Bouchercon, so it’s contemporary and set in San Diego. But I couldn’t resist some Victorian elements, so it takes place at a neo-Victorian steampunk convention. I hope you enjoy it!

That crazy technology

Some readers noticed, I’m sure, the weird formats of previous newsletters. On some people’s screens they looked fine; on others, not so much. Last time I sent a second version cuz I was so embarrassed by the first one. 

I love online technologies — I really do! But mailing list programs are a little insane. They need to keep everyone’s email — that’s no big deal. But they also need to use certain server settings to discourage the emails landing in a Spam folder at the other end. And they have lots of options, some of which don’t work very well. I’d been trying to get MailerLite to send my newsletter posts to you when I post them, but the formatting was, shall we say, unpredictable.

So two weeks ago, I spent an entire day upgrading to the new MailerLite and learning how to structure my newsletter. I didn’t like any of their formats, so I got into the HTML code (I only get free access for the first 30 days) and started hacking. Long ago (1998) I started teaching online, and if you didn’t know some code (well, it’s actually Markup Language, not code) you couldn’t do anything online. Lots of trial and error, but I’m hoping the newsletter will look better from now on! 

Links

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books.

Want to read previous blog posts? They’re here

Until next time!

 

Grousable Books Newletter: 15 August

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Welcome to BookFunnel readers 

First, a special welcome to those who downloaded a copy of “The Dancing Colonel” through Find Your Next Favorite Author on BookFunnel. The short story features the characters from my Tommy Jones Mystery books, and ties in to some themes of the British empire. I hope all newsletter readers enjoy it!

A freebie cuz Bouchercon

Just in honor of Bouchercon, the big mystery writing convention, I have a free copy of a contemporary short story available to newsletter subscribers. It’s called “Murder Steampunk Style”, and takes place at a San Diego steampunk convention. And there’s a little Victorian twist in it too, of course!

You can download the story free from BookFunnel until the end of the convention (September 4) at BookFunnel. I’ll be posting it everywhere for purchase soon, if you’d rather have hard copy.

Now, to prepare for going to Bouchercon, I really should start thinking about what I might say on the panel (Historicals: Navigating the Past from the Present, Thursday at 9am). Instead I keep thinking: what am I going to wear? should I get my hair cut? how early should I get there? how will they display my books in the shop? will it be fun and exciting? will I shrink into introspective silence in response to being with so many people? 

I shall report out later!

Dover books

At book fairs and events, I don’t just sell my own books. I also have quite a few actual Victorian and Edwardian works of the literature, the sort of thing that informs my own work. Dover has wonderful examples, including books by Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Joseph Conrad, and H. G. Wells. 

Most certainly I recommend these. Dover editions are low-cost because many of the works are out of copyright.

Life in San Benno

This feels a little Garrison Keillor-ish, but the fictional seaside So Cal town of San Benno is taking on a life of its own as I continue writing the tentatively titled Death at Luna Beach. I’m even thinking of making a map of the place.

The City Council of San Benno is very pro-business, and the town has become increasingly gentrified. A lot of the funky beach town vibe has been lost, and a number of citizens aren’t happy about that. Rosie McMahon, a bright woman in her 70s, will help solve the murder of a man from Bakersfield whose body was found buried in sand from a bluff collapse. By her side is Lou, the grumpy newspaperman, and Tiffany, a high school student earning her civics credit by serving on the Beach Estates Homeowners Association. Plans are afoot for a new development, and then this body turns up. 

What about the police? Well, the town has only recently become a city with its own tiny police force. Rory Gallardo, who used to patrol for mountain lions above L.A., is the official in charge.

Nearby San Drogo, named after the patron saint of coffee, even hosts a state university and their resources help solve the case. 

Featured blog post

There is only one blog post this fortnight, but it’s a fun one! I conversed with Hephaestus, the big orange tabby cat from Death at Luna Beach. Always pleased to talk with one of my characters.

In the garden

If you’re following the tale of the possums in our back garden, here’s the news. 

The two children of big mama Nobby (she has a nob on her tail) return every night. Apparently, I should call them Jack and Jill, the formal names for adult male and female possums. But I’ve been saying Little Brother and Little Sister and that works just as well. She is bigger than he is. He tends to turn away from my camera.

Panda2 (very white with very black ears), who is now the size of a pot-belly pig (and resembles one!) still comes around. He could be their dad. When he and Nobby encounter each other their dislike is palpable. Might be a short story in that one . . .

We’re on the third or fourth generation of these families living in the garden, which pleases me enormously. I like my guests to be comfortable. 

Links

Want to read previous newsletters? They’re located here at my website, where you can also find information and buy links to all my books.

Want to read previous blog posts? They’re here

Until next time!

 

Grousable Newsletter 2 August: Mystery and more

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Bouchercon Historical Mystery Panel

Big news this fortnight is that I’m on a panel for Bouchercon, one of the biggest mystery writer conferences anywhere.

Bouchercon poster

It’s a panel on historical mysteries, although I believe I’m the only actual historian. Which is good, because then I can bring a different viewpoint. In fact, I hope to mention two salient ideas:

  1. Primary sources are fantastic for both ideas and accuracy. (So diaries, newspapers, old photos can both trigger a story and make it more authentic.)
  2. Historians have training and tendencies that other historical fiction writers may not have, such as an understanding of the larger historical context in which the action takes place, or an obsessive tendency to find out whether smoke/fog in a can had been on the market in 2004 (see below).

But mostly, of course, I’ll be there to learn things, meet people, and get to know new works. 

Creating a California town

Back in April I had some questions about my Work in Progress, a beach cozy mystery that begins with a body buried in the sand near a bluff: Who is he? How did he get there? And what does it mean that one of those little paper umbrellas was found at the scene?

I’ve discovered that he is Bud Carson, a scout for Western Petroleum in Bakersfield. What was he doing in . . .

San Benno. That’s my So Cal beach town. It’s somewhere vague between Los Angeles and San Diego, a previously sleepy seaside town that’s just become a city. I have a professional sleuth (the new-in-town detective Rory Gallardo) and my amateur sleuth (Rosie McMahon, an older woman who has a writing shed filled with technology, some of which she built herself). And I now know the paper umbrellas came from Dino’s, one of those wood-sided old restaurants with a neon dinosaur decor trying to go upscale. 

Mystery image for San Benno

Creating a town is a fun thing to do. It’s ironic that I set my English mysteries in real places, but I live in So Cal and I’m going to invent one. 

Featured blog post

Well, to be honest, it’s the only post I did in July! It’s been a busy month. This post is about a mystery writer (that’s me) writing a romance (which I did), and some lessons I learned along the way. 

Featured blog post

Gardening update

Mid-July here in SoCal took us from the amazingly steady rains in June to heat and dryness. That shouldn’t be news — the warm and dry happens every year. How did plants respond? It varied. At first the roses went nuts; now they’re tired. The tomatoes cowered in the cool rainy days; they they started jumping up when it got warm. One of the possums in the yard had her babies. This is her second litter this year. It was easy to tell she’d birthed them–her poor pouch was practically dragging on the ground when she walked, and when she sat to eat your could see little hands and tails poking out.

a possum eating dinner

But this possum has not seen any Disney movies or wildlife websites, so she doesn’t know she’s supposed to do the cute thing: carry around the babies clinging to her back (and singing “When I Was Single”, for those who remember America Sings at Disneyland). As she dide for her last litter, as soon as she can she leaves them hidden in the nest to go feed herself. It makes me feel good that she thinks my garden is so safe. 

AI and writing

The biggest talk everywhere these days, other than the writers’ strike, is the impact of Artificial Intelligence on writing. Already quite a few things we read on the web are written by a computer, so this should’t be news. But most studios, producers, and publishers like nothing better than to make money and getting rid of writers saves money. The creative writing produced by computer may not be up to snuff yet,.

asking AI for sources and getting a mystery

But AI can certainly deal with anything formulaic. This is because AI garners from the web not only its information (sometimes false) but also its format (which it does much better). So heck, go ahead and use AI to write a draft of that form letter/book summary/resumé. Since AI doesn’t have a handle yet on the creative stuff, most people won’l like how it writes fiction. The plots may be good (formula again!) but the expression is banal. Rather like Data on Star Trek reading an adventure story aloud.

Will I use AI to write a mystery? Absolutely not–I’m the author, so I do the writing. Will I use it as a sophisticated search engine? Absolutely. The other night I was trying to research something for my Work in Progress. I needed to know whether they had canned smoke/haze in 2004, since I wanted my sleuth to use it with lasers. Google searches yielded nothing, but ChatGPT told me when it was invented and whether it might be likely or not. 

This month’s e-book promotions: & a free book! 

Starting today through August 20, you can download The Dancing Colonel: A Short Story for FREE in the Find Your New Favorite Author campaign.

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is being featured through Kobo for UK readers only. Special price is £2.99 through August.

 

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Grousable Newsletter 15 July

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Traveling books

I’ve always wanted my books to travel. When I was writing Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, I imagined leaving copies on trains and in bus stations, particularly in England. When I got there with books in hand, I wasn’t sure how to do it. I was quite positive that a nearby helpful British person would say, “Miss? You forgot your book”. 

So instead I gave them to individuals I met. At my hotel in London, I saw that the day person at the front desk was often reading a book. After talking about what she liked to read, I gave her a copy. 

My book Murder at Old St. Thomas's travels to Austria

This is a photo she sent of my book, which she’s reading on her holiday to Austria. I like this a lot more than leaving it on a train!

The Garden

Finally the sun has come out, so although the tomatoes are still suffering I’ve got boysenberries, cucumbers, and butterflies (I didn’t grow those, but there’s a chrysalis hanging from one of my flower pots so I’m taking credit). 

Butterflies are symbolic, and the complete transformation from the caterpillar, stem-bound and sluggish, is nothing short of magical.

The garden is a place of magic and the other stuff of fantasy, including epic battles. I’m currently having one with a bunny I’ve named Señor Conejo, so called because I used spicy pepper spray to keep him off the beans and he found the flavor quite tasty. I have built several structures to keep him away from the beans (he likes the leaves) and he has defeated each one, either by tearing it down or standing on top of it to reach higher leaves. Bunny 16, Beans 1. 

In cases like this, one can get upset or give up gracefully. Choosing the latter, I now consider the beans a “trap crop” for the bunny, so that he eats that instead of my tomatoes and squash. The lobelia, which he denudes of its blue blossoms, must be a trap crop too, I suppose. 

Lisa in London

While traveling in May, I visited many locations from the Tommy Jones Mysteries. I’ve posted them all on the video page. Here’s one of my favorites (I have not tried embedding a video in a newsletter before, so let’s see if it works!).

The pandemic meant that while I was writing Murder at an Exhibition and Murder on the Pneumatic Railway, I had to rely on my notes from previous visits, research, memory, and Google Street View. So it was quite exciting for me to visit the locations. I didn’t get to them all, but was happy to do videos near the ones I visited. On some, however, the sound isn’t so great. Next time I’ll have a lavalier microphone and do better!

A Draft is (Almost) Done

I’ve been working on my assigned chapter for an upcoming book on H. G. Wells. I’ve had almost a year to complete the research, which was significant since my expertise is only his early life and I’m supposed to cover his entire life (he lived to be 79). Now I’ve written the chapter and had it edited by three readers and two editors, so I’m doing my final (?) pass through. 

Section of the chapter I'm writing for a book on H.G. Wells

What’s interesting about editing your own work is how it changes in your mind. My first draft felt awkward, and I keep working on it until it wasn’t horrible. Then I put it aside before working on it some more, moving things around, and figuring out what was wrong with it (in this case, that I was repeating myself in several places). Knowing this, my wonderful helpers could look for those things, and they found them and more. With each edit, the work tightened up and became better. I’m pretty proud of it now.

Soon it will go to the book’s editors, who undoubtedly will find more things I need to change. That should make it better still. To say it’s an iterative process would be an understatement. 

Books are like this too, of course. That’s why they say you should write the book you want to read. Because you will be reading it many, many times!

Promos

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is on Amazon promotion for the July Perfect Book Nook Cozies through BookFunnel.

Cozy book sale at Book Funnel this month

And all of my e-books are still at 50% off at Smashwords through the end of the month. Take advantage, e-book readers!

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Grousable Newsletter 1 July

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Book news

Book fairs are seriously fun. Readers get to meet authors and vice versa. And when the weather is warm and sunny, people come out thinking they might buy a book. The North Park Book Fair in San Diego was just such an event.

People were there with their dogs and children, and they had a microphone set up for author readings. A very good day.

Here’s some big news: All my fiction e-books are 50% off this month only through Smashwords. So if you’re an e-book fan, now’s the time.

As for works in progress, I am focused for just a little longer on a non-fiction chapter for a book on H.G. Wells. As soon as that’s edited, I hope to get back to writing my California beach cozy. The body has been discovered, and Rosie McMahon is on the case, but how can an elderly woman do more than the local police? And why are there developers sniffing around the town?

A chat

In addition to reading from Murder at Old St. Thomas’s at the North Park Book Fair, I also chatted with a group from the Historical Novel Society on the uses of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs for writers. 

The best uses of AI for writers are to do business tasks: query letters, library requests. Also, AI can suggest options, create summaries and synopses, make outlines. What it’s lousy at is telling the truth or writing creatively. And sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Murder mystery writers have a hard time getting information on the things that matter to them: the effectiveness of poisons, methods of death, and how to get away with a crime!

Is it Victorian?

The Victorian era is famous for repression — repression of sexuality, women, and open speech. But we know much of this from 19th century “prescriptive” literature. These are books and articles on how a woman should tend to her home and husband, how police should behave on the job, which books are suitable for children. Men and women who don’t know each other, some say, shouldn’t mix in public.

I like to tell my students that if people weren’t committing the crime, there wouldn’t be a law. In other words, people must be doing the opposite if prescriptive literature is trying to encourage certain behavior. So to me, a tract on how women shouldn’t be uppity means that women were being uppity. Treatises on improper literature means that people are reading it, and strict behavioral rules for boys and girls means there were wild and free boys and girls. And men and women most certainly mixed in public. Here’s a bunch of people crammed onto an omnibus:

Omnibus Life in London, by William Maw Egley (1859)

So while free, sexual, open-minded characters in novels may seem to be outliers, they might not be. If you went back in a time machine to Victorian London, you would see women walking the streets alone, individuals breaking class boundaries, and people laughing at rude jokes. It was not as stiff and staid as rumors would have you believe.

Gentleman Jack

Since I don’t have HBO, I was only able to watch some of Gentleman Jack with a friend, but found it fascinating. Based on Anne Lister, the show used her diaries for information and the character’s direct address to the audience. Lister’s diaries were partly written in code, especially for the sections detailing her love affairs with young women, in the first half of the nineteenth century. She married her lover (unregistered) in 1834.

Copyright HBO

While she’s not the first lesbian (or even the “first modern lesbian” as web pages assert), she was different from other women yet respected by her tenants and local society as a businesswoman and landowner. That she cohabited with another woman wasn’t unusual; commenting on it would have been. 

The production values for the show are excellent despite a tendency toward exaggeration: Anne did not look quite as masculine and her hair did not have the 18th century double-roll style. She did wear black, unusual for women not in mourning. So yes, she was an outlier. But the fact that she was successful indicates that Victorian mores, while strict and prescriptive, didn’t always hold.

Social media

I’ve been posting daily on Instagram and Facebook, but if you want to see all my posts I have a “social posts” page on the website. It helps me keep track if nothing else! 

More news coming soon from the garden…

Lisa