A Hundred Years to Never Forget…(Let’s read some books about the Great War)

It’s been a hundred years since the end of World War I—an appropriate time to highlight some books I read this year on this subject. The books are all different—the main characters have different nationalities and the books are set in different locations—providing an interesting perspective.

World War I has always appeared as a messy affair to me. First, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and based on alliances, other countries joined in; with Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the US on one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Eight and half million soldiers and seven million civilians lost their lives in the span of four years.

But a book usually focuses on one region. Let’s start with The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. It’s set in France during World War I (and World War II) and embraces the role women played in it. The book has two closely connected storylines. In 1947, we get to know Charlie, an American girl trying to locate her French cousin, who is presumed dead. In 1915, we follow Eve, who works as a spy for the Alice Network in France during World War I.

I liked the story set in 1915 the best. The danger of Eve’s job, the double standards she had to deal with as a woman in her profession, her resourcefulness and bravery, all made it impossible for me to put the book down. I don’t know as much about World War I as I would like, and I certainly didn’t know about the Alice Network. The afterword by Kate Quinn is a wonderful addition; much of the book is based on true events.

It’s so easy to ignore women in history who did amazing things. Because, let’s face it, back in the beginning of the 20th century women weren’t supposed to do “amazing things.” The women who were part of The Alice Network, lived in a time in which they were still not allowed to vote, yet they showed themselves capable enough to spy on the enemy and put their lives at risk. For me, Eve’s story alone made this book an excellent read.

As Kate Quinn explains in the afterword, the Alice Network and Alice Dubois, or Louise de Bettingies, really existed. She organized a vast and highly effective network of informants in the area of Lille. Louise was captured by the Germans in 1915, and died in prison in 1918, before the end of the war.

My interest, sparked by reading The Alice Network, led me to pick up a classic describing life in the trenches: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (written in 1927). Mr. Remarque himself was a soldier on the German side. Instead of glorifying the war, his descriptions of the carnage and total despair these men faced, paint a vivid picture of the utter madness of war. In a few passages, he flat-out taunts the people in power, questioning why the common men always end up fighting a war that was not theirs to begin with. Not surprisingly, the book was forbidden by the Nazi regime. Mr. Remarque had to flee Germany soon after publishing it and in 1938 his German citizenship was revoked.

Some of the areas of fighting in West-Europe, initially nothing but scarred fields of mud and craters, were cordoned off after the war and have since then developed into lush forests, but unfortunately, some are still littered with (unexploded) shells. Other areas apparently are still toxic, containing high levels of arsenic. For reference, check out this article in the Atlantic.

I have never visited any of the battlefields in West-Europe, but this summer we went to Slovenia and Italy, where there was extensive fighting as well. Triglav National Park, in Slovenia, is a beautiful mountainous area—you can hardly imagine its bloody history while enjoying the amazing views of emerald rivers, pristine waterfalls and rocky mountain tops. My daughter decided that if there are fairies, they’d be sure to live in this place.

The fairies may have thought differently a hundred years ago. An estimated 300,000 soldiers died and 700,000 were wounded on the Soča Front. The Italians invaded this part of Slovenia to open up the way to Vienna, but instead faced years of fighting the Austro-Hungarian army uphill.  Then, in 1917, a German offensive blew right through the Italian defenses. The battle of Kobarid (Coparetto) and the following retreat has been well described  in A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in this area during the war.

I read A Farewell to Arms during high school, but I will admit it was kind of lost on me at that time, and I discarded it as a depressing love story. Having reread the book after our visit to Slovenia and Italy, I can say I appreciate his writing style and tone a lot more than I did when I was younger. The love story was still very sad, but having a better sense of the places he described deepened the reading experience.

It’s been a hundred years—how easy it would be to stop remembering. But if we let time erase the memories of the horrors of war, who is to stop us from making the same mistakes over and over again? These three books are all poignant tales that will ensure you won’t forget.

The Three Legs of Sicily

I love traveling with my kids. They see the world differently; there is always something to wonder about. It reminds me to keep wondering. There are things I don’t notice anymore because I’ve seen them before. And then there are things I don’t notice because I wasn’t paying attention.

During our travels this summer, we spent two wonderful days in Sicily, Italy, a place I’d never been to before. Two days are not enough. It’s a fascinating island—the references to Sicily in Greek Mythology are numerous, there is a lot of history, good food and of course, the Mediterranean Sea. Besides that, when in Sicily, you can’t fail to notice a few things. One, the number of churches. Two, the references to The Godfather. And three, their flag. The depiction on it is everywhere—T-shirts, bibs, you name it.

The Sicilian flag is not your usual stripe/triangle/star equivalent—instead it has three, dare I say, rather shapely legs, and a winged head in the middle. Which begs the question; why three legs? And who’s the head? I was asked these questions many times by my inquisitive ones, but I had no good answer. And I couldn’t call a friend, as I was overseas and did not have cell service. Google was painfully out of reach.

Curious, I looked it up when we were back in the USA. The three legs are a triskelion, which is an ancient symbol. I am not sure why there are human legs involved in the shape, but it definitely catches the eye. There are Greek coins from Sicily dating back as far as 300 B.C. with this three-legged symbol. The triskelion apparently represents the three “points,” or the triangular shape, of Sicily.

The head—shockingly—is Medusa. I can honestly say it would never have occurred to me. I remember reading about Medusa, and she wasn’t that friendly. Adorned with snakes for hair, a set of boar tusks and wings, she was not considered very “pleasing”. So unpleasing in fact, that beholding her appearance would turn anyone into stone.

I was surprised to find that her image was actually used frequently throughout ancient history. It was used to keep evil away or plainly served as a warning, implying the Goddess Athena’s protection. In Sicily’s case, Athena was the patron goddess of the island.

Even in modern times Medusa continues to fascinate us. For instance, she is displayed on the symbol of Versace, but instead the image shows her from before when she was turned into a snake-haired, evil monster and is still a beautiful young maiden: a symbol of beauty, that everyone falls in love with.

Of course, now the cat was out of the bag, and my kids wanted to know who Medusa was. Good grief. Greek mythology is a bit brutal, meaning, I always have to tweak stories here and there (a lot). The challenge is censoring enough but not too much—and shielding my iPhone from my son who desperately tries to read over my shoulder as I go along.

I admit I censored—heavily. Apart from the brutality, the last message I want to convey to my (young) kids is how a woman gets molested (by Poseidon), and then gets punished for it by an angry Athena, who turns her into a hideous monster. So much for justice, female solidarity, or just speaking out in general.

Anyway, that’s just the beginning of the story. Perseus (one of Zeus’ sons) is ordered by King Polydectes, who’s a jerk, to cut off Medusa’s head and bring it to him. The Gods help Perseus by giving him a helmet of invisibility (Hades), winged sandals (Hermes), a sword from Hephaestus and a mirrored shield from Athena. The reflection of his shield allows him not to look at Medusa directly, which is how he gets the job done. After Medusa is defeated, the winged horse Pegasus springs from her body—her child with Poseidon.

Medusa’s head, as it turns out, comes in handy. Persues uses it on his travels to change Atlas into a mountain (the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa) and, when he finally returns home, King Polydectes into a statue. He then gives the head to back-stabbing Athena, who puts it on her shield, so she can turn her own enemies into stone. Which is why the image of Medusa is probably more of a reflection of Athena’s protection than of Medusa herself.

There are different versions of the myth apparently, but this was the one I came across. It’s hard not to feel for the poor woman.

My daughter asked me if Medusa ever lived in Sicily. Good question. I told her I didn’t think so and anyways, I reassured her, she’s dead. I explained that she most likely never existed in the first place, but my daughter believes in fairies and magic (she really liked the Pegasus part, after all, it’s almost like My Little Pony), so I’m not sure I convinced her. I promised her nothing in Sicily would turn her into stone.

My daughter wasn’t so sure. She pointed out how we’d seen Sicily’s volcano, Mt. Etna, and the scars of lava covering the landscape, as evidence of the most recent eruptions.

True enough.

But lava is not all bad. It brings fertile soil. And on the flag, Medusa’s head is surrounded by three ears of wheat—signifying the fertility of the land.

Isn’t it amazing, the stories one flag can tell…

Autor Interview – Judy Penz Sheluk

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Penz Sheluk, the author of the Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. I have read several of her books and loved them all. If you like small town mysteries with a strong, female lead character, look no further. Her books feature murders, antique stores, coffins and tarot cards—all the good stuff! On September 21, the second book in the Marketville Mysteries, Past and Present, is coming out. Certainly something I am looking forward to! 

Welcome Judy!

What made you start writing? Was it something you always did or picked up later?

I’ve been writing stories inside my head for as long as I can remember, certainly as far back as elementary school. I thought everyone did that. It wasn’t until a few years after I was married, and commuting a fair distance to work, that I mentioned a story I’d been “working on” to my husband. He was like, “You write stories in your head?” And I said, “Yes, don’t you?” He bought me a Creative Writing Workshop for my birthday. That was in 2000. I remember the first time I had to read a story out loud to the class. The theme was “painful teenage memory.” I wrote Cleopatra Slippers (later published in THEMA Literary Journal). When I looked up from reading (nervously and badly), everyone had tears in their eyes, and a couple of people were actually crying. I remember thinking, “Maybe I can do this.” That was 2002.

Which character mostly resembles you?

They all have a bit of me inside of them. For example, Emily Garland (The Hanged Man’s Noose; A Hole in One) is a runner, a journalist, and she’s in her early thirties. I’ve run 4 marathons and countless half-marathons, I’ve been a journalist since 2003, and I used to be in my early thirties! Arabella Carpenter (same series) has a motto “Authenticity Matters” and I very much follow that philosophy. Calamity (Callie) Barnstable (Skeletons in the Attic, Past & Present) is also a runner. She’s also inquisitive, no-nonsense, and somewhat haunted by her past. I’ve got a few skeletons in my attic, too.

How do you come up with ideas for your books?

From life. For example, The Hanged Man’s Noose was about a greedy developer who comes to a small town with plans to build a mega-box store, thereby threatening all the local businesses and indie shops. We see that happen all the time. I just thought, “What if someone was willing to murder to stop it?” My latest book, Past & Present, was inspired by the contents of my late mother’s train case. As I started researching her journey, I knew I’d found my latest idea for a book.

Any specific writing routine? Bound to a specific location? Favorite chair?

In my Philipsburg Blue (Benjamin Moore historical colors) office on my iMac or at our camp on Lake Superior, watching the water, on my iPad, or sometimes, by writing longhand in a notebook. Never in a public place like a coffee shop. I don’t know how people can do that. I generally listen to talk radio when I write, though sometimes I’ll write with country music in the background. When I’m super focused or easily distracted, I opt for silence.

You have a publisher. What would you say to all the indie-writers out there? Should we all try to get one?

I have a traditional MWA approved publisher (Barking Rain Press), but in February 2018 I started my own imprint, Superior Shores Press, so I’m now a hybrid author. However, I think if you’ve never been published, trying to self-publish right off the hop would be incredibly difficult, if only because you won’t understand the business (because publishing is a business) and you won’t have a following. After 3 years of books, blogging, and other social media, I’ve developed a modest following (not in Stephen King territory yet but hope springs eternal), and so I thought it was time to take the leap.

Who are your favorite writers (and why)?

John Sandford for his dry humor and bang-on pacing. The late Sue Grafton, who improved with every book and made me want to write mysteries. Agatha Christie for leading the way.

What do you do to relax?

In the summer months, I love to golf. I still run, but not the crazy distances I used to (sometimes I think a marathon would be fun, and then I get a grip on reality). I love walking my dog, Gibbs, a three-year-old Golden Retriever. I read a lot, mostly mystery and suspense.

What would you tell any writers out there that are struggling?

Don’t give up. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was turned down 61 times over three years and it’s brilliant. Accept constructive criticism and learn from it. Write every day, even if you only have 15 minutes to do it. You can’t edit a blank page.

Last question… What can you tell us about your latest book?

Ha! I thought you’d never ask. Here’s the back of the book synopsis.

Sometimes the past reaches out to the present…

It’s been thirteen months since Calamity (Callie) Barnstable inherited a house in Marketville under the condition that she search for the person who murdered her mother thirty years earlier. She solves the mystery, but what next? Unemployment? Another nine-to-five job in Toronto?

Callie decides to set down roots in Marketville, take the skills and knowledge she acquired over the past year, and start her own business: Past & Present Investigations.

It’s not long before Callie and her new business partner, best friend Chantelle Marchand, get their first client: a woman who wants to find out everything she can about her grandmother, Anneliese Prei, and how she came to a “bad end” in 1956. It sounds like a perfect first assignment. Except for one thing: Anneliese’s past winds its way into Callie’s present, and not in a manner anyone—least of all Callie—could have predicted.

Past & Present is now available, http://authl.it/afj. Publication date Sept. 21, 2018.

Thank you Judy! 

More about the author: Judy Penz Sheluk is the Amazon international bestselling author of the Glass Dolphin Mysteries (The Hanged Man’s Noose; A Hole in One) and the Marketville Mysteries (Skeletons in the Attic; Past & Present). Her short stories appear in several collections.

Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, International Thriller Writers, Inc., the South Simcoe Arts Council, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors, representing Toronto/Southwestern Ontario.

Find her at http://www.judypenzsheluk.com or at Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Bookbub.

Slaying the Dragon

It’s been a while since I wrote a post. Stuff happened. More accurately: Shingles happened.

Shingles gets its own capital S. Why? Because Shingles sucks. Big time. Are there worse things than getting Shingles? Absolutely. But still, it was a miserable affair.

For those of you who haven’t made their acquaintance with Shingles, let me introduce you. It’s a reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. After one recovers from the chickenpox, usually sometime during childhood, the virus does not die as one would expect. Instead, it takes a long, nice, quiet vacation somewhere within nerve tissue near the spinal cord, while we continue life, blissfully unaware of its presence.

That is, until it decides the holidays are over. Pox, apparently, is an old medieval term for curse. Ha! Well put. During a period of poor resilience the lurking virus pops up like an evil jack-in-the box, travels along a nerve to the skin and produces a localized, nasty rash, as well as a tremendous amount of pain.

I never thought about Shingles before it slithered its way in—or rather—out. Why would I? I haven’t reached the age when they start offering vaccination for it. Surely young people don’t get it, right? Wrong, unfortunately.

The chickenpox virus is a member of the Herpes family—the medical term for Shingles is Herpes Zoster.
Zoster is derived from Greek, meaning “girdle” or “belt”. Shingles’ rash looks like a belt when it’s located on the torso, as it wraps around one side. The English word “Shingles” most likely comes from the Latin word  for “girdle,” which is “cingulus.” It has nothing to do with the roof of your house. Even though my six-year old kept asking me why the roof was making me sick.

Yes, why indeed? Not the roof, but why did I get Shingles? I did not feel like I was overly stressed. Yes, I was possibly chronically sleep deprived and I had just recovered from a cold, but that was not anything I hadn’t handled before. Be that as it may, the Shingles hit me hard. Sitting in the doctor’s office, my rash solicited the empathetic “Oh my, I haven’t seen it this bad in quite some time!” which no patient wants to hear ever, although I appreciated the frankness of it. It sure validated my intense discomfort. Shingles, as I discovered, can be extremely painful.

I had some time on my hands to think about this pain—that is, after I slept for a week. It’s quite amazing how many different qualities pain can have. As it turns out, Shingles is an absolute treasure trove for descriptive writing. It felt like a dragon had lodged itself in my liver, where it strangled me with its tail, while simultaneously breathing fire and stabbing me with its nails.

Shingles’ pain is relentless and exhausting, even after the skin has healed, and because it’s nerve pain, it doesn’t respond well to normal pain medication. There is something about chronic pain and having to grit your teeth the whole day. Let’s just say I was not easy to be around with. At some point the healed skin started to itch terribly as well, and upon scratching it would erupt in flames, so it was either pain, itch, or burn, or all of the above. Next time I am contemplating killing off an unlikable character in one of my books, I may just consider giving him/her Shingles instead.

So, what did I do? There’s not much you can do unfortunately. I took my anti-virals. I rested and wallowed in my misery. And I hoped it would go away—which is not a given. For some people the post-herpetic nerve pain can last a long time. I was reluctant to take any medication other than Tylenol or Ibuprofen, so I finally opted for some acupuncture. Whether it was this or just the natural course of the illness, I’ll never know, but after weeks, the pain did slowly improve. Now, three moths later, it’s more like background noise: annoying at times, but ignorable.

During all this, my website languished, as did my Facebook page. I worked on my work-in-progress, but only when I felt up to it. In the summer we took a long vacation and I focused mainly on family time, resting and maintaining a healthy life-style.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am the dragon is on its way out.  Slowly withering away, it still softly claws at me every now and then, but hopefully soon it will take its last breath.  And I pray it has not created any offspring to come back and find me; one visit was more than enough.

Think Spring

Think Spring

That’s what I told myself as my kids had a snow day earlier this week. But it’s not easy when you look outside, and everything is white.

“Think spring,” I said, when I took the trash can down the driveway two nights ago and had to lug it through inches of icy slush. And why not? Obviously, my plowing service is thinking it’s spring as well.

“Think spring,” I tell my children, when they complain of still having to bring their snow pants to school mid-April. They are sick of winter. And frankly, so am I.

I have relatives in the Netherlands raving about their beautiful tulips and their magnolia trees bursting with blossom. Instead, my daffodils still have to find their way up. I don’t blame the poor flowers; if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t want to come out either.

The birds in my yard have been out of sorts. Most have now returned for—yes, spring—but building a nest in this weather must be an uncomfortable task. My dog is miserable. She freezes her paws off, as well as her you-know-what, every time she has to go pee. We are all done with winter, yet it keeps lingering, like that unwanted guest you so desperately want to leave your house but can’t get rid of.

But yesterday, the most amazing thing happened. The sun came out, the temperature hit a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, snow started melting, and despite the unfortunate hailstorm shortly after that, I am pretty certain that finally, spring is starting. Why? Because I looked at the calendar (it is mid-April…) and at the weather forecast. It’s coming. And those few sunny hours reminded me that soon, my children will want to go outside again.

There’s only one problem; I am writing the next book in The Dunnhill Series, and it’s set in…right, winter. And even though I am so done with the cold and snow, I still have to write about it.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided that winter would be the right season for book 3. Maybe because when I started writing, it was winter, and I wasn’t yet sick of it. Besides, Dunnhill is in the mountains, and winter in the mountains is much better than winter in Michigan. And maybe I imagined I would write faster and be done by now, but with three antsy children—let’s just say it’s not going as fast as I hoped.

You could argue that as a writer the season within a book shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Just “think winter” right? Normally I would agree, but here in Michigan, when spring finally arrives, something strange happens. Suddenly there’s flowers everywhere, as spring rushes like mad into summer—lush, green and warm—it truly is glorious. And during that time, the idea of winter becomes like a whiff of smoke, elusive and fleeting. The moment the weather warms up, most of us Michiganders seem to get hit with collective amnesia and forget about winter. If we’d remembered, we’d all leave this state for good.

This is why I need winter. You know—to hold on to what winter really feels like. My lawn is turning green and I am already starting to forget. The truth is, I have no desire to remember. I am ready for spring. Book or not.

Over the next few months, I’ll try my best to think winter while sitting on my deck, enjoying the sun and the only thing cold will be my drink. But if spring in my book happens to arrive a little early, I hope you will understand.

Author Interview – Janice Richardson

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Janice Richardson, the cozy mystery author of the Spencer Funeral Home Series. I read the first book in the series, Casket Cache, in which we meet Jennifer, a funeral director in Niagara (Canada).  While she is trying to solve a compelling mystery, she also has a funeral home to run. Not your most common profession, I grant you, but…it made for a very interesting, different, and most of all, appealing read.

I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to read it, and I was hesitant at first. Like many people I read to escape, and a funeral home wouldn’t be my first pick. However, it turned out to be a lovely read. Written with emotion, this is not your typical cozy; the stories of Jennifer’s workdays and the grief of her clients feel very real. But Jennifer is compassionate, empathetic and kind, and a wonderful protagonist to follow.

Welcome Janice! To start off, can you tell us a little about the Spencer Funeral Home Series?

Recently I watched the PBS special Into the Night:  Portraits of Life and Death.  What a beautiful and compelling documentary.  As baby boomers age, people are confronted with their discomfort around death and dying and learning to face their fear and uncertainty.  It was an uplifting, gentle, positive and at times, sad documentary.

It is for those reasons I wrote the series. First—to educate readers.  Not everyone has been in a funeral home, or had to speak with a director or plan a funeral.  It is a traumatic and difficult time.  Second—to present a portrait of a funeral director in a way that was realistic and endearing.  Last, but not least, I wanted the story to entertain without being silly or disrespectful.

Since the series was published I have noticed more funeral directors have jumped on the bandwagon and are writing fictional stories about the funeral profession and helping to allay the fear, secrecy and unknown.  There are memoirs galore by funeral directors (The Making of a Funeral Director is my non-fiction contribution), all of which make for interesting reads, the fictional reads open new doors for readers who don’t like non-fiction.

What made you start writing?

The memoir was written in the ‘90s and put away.  With the advent of self-publishing, I chose to spruce it up and put it out there.   It is serving its purpose, I have students and individuals who are looking at funeral service who write me to say the book helped them.  That means the world to me.

As for the cozy mystery series, it just sort of happened.  I moved from the northern part of the province to the south, leaving behind my life as a special needs mom.  For a while I felt lost.  I did not plan to write a book, let alone a series.  It just happened, pouring out onto the keyboard over a two year period. Being alone became a pleasure, my special needs children are happy and well cared for, so it was time to move on.  The books helped me with that process, almost writing themselves.

Just like Jennifer, you were a funeral director yourself.  What made you choose the profession?

When I was eight, my adopted mom took me to a relative’s funeral.  She was a realist, an old school nurse who didn’t sugarcoat life lessons.  She explained everything to me.  I loved the solemnity of the funeral home and service, the peaceful atmosphere and the support the funeral director provided.  My instinct was to comfort people who were crying and sad.  At the graveside, as I watched the committal, I knew then and there I wanted to be a funeral director.  It was years before I was able to go to college and pursue my chosen career.  I have no regrets.

What is your writing ritual?

Ha ha – it’s 90 miles an hour, up to 12 hours a day.  Add to that half the night chasing plot bunnies.  I do like absolute quiet, which is possible since I’m retired.  I sit in an easy chair, laptop on knee, fingers flying.  Stopping to eat, stretch or go outside and sniff the air is an inconvenience.   That method does make for some serious rewrites and edits, but it’s how I write.

You write about the place where you live (Niagara).  What do you love most about your home town?

The Niagara region is beautiful.  I moved here six years ago and often wonder why I didn’t move south sooner.  The peninsula has a temperate climate (for Canada), the Niagara region known for its wine, fruit, and tourism.  Toronto is a few hours north, Niagara Falls is 25 minutes away, the US border is ½ hour away.  My town is on the old Welland canal, similar to the Erie Canal across the border.  When I want excitement, I go to the Falls for the attractions, casino, and shopping. I love the vineyards and orchards and lavender fields.

Are you and Jennifer much alike?

Hmmm.  I would like to think so.  Jennifer would be the ideal funeral director.  She has her weaknesses, she is driven, doesn’t like to ask for help.  As we get older, as the years pass and we reflect back, there are chapters or paragraphs in our lives that we wish we could rewrite.  An author is given a chance to do just that in their characters. I think Jennifer is a composite of several people I admire and respect and the type of person I wish I had been sometimes.   In the last book she faces some major challenges.  I left it up to the reader to decide how the story ends.  I know how I wanted her to face the future and I love it when readers share their version of how it should end.

What do you like most about being an author?

Encouraging new authors is one the best jobs an author has.  Now that I have published five times and my books are doing well, I enjoy encouraging and supporting others.  It can be as simple as retweeting or liking a post or offering support by reviewing a book.  We are a community.  Attending Facebook events, local author events or signings is part of giving back.  I am so grateful for the support I received when I started from beta readers, my editor, authors, bloggers and friends.

This is so very true. Support within our community is invaluable. 

It was very kind of you to interview me and review Casket Cache, Lucia.  Your Dunnhill series is a delightful read and I look forward to reading more of your work.

Thank you Janice, that warms my heart! And thank you for sharing your story. It was wonderful to hear more about you and your work, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.  

You can find Janice on Goodreads, Twitter and Facebook, and Casket Cache is currently free as e-book (Amazon and other retailers)

Author Interview – Laurel Heidtman

This month I interviewed Lolli Powell (Laurel Heidtman), the writer of The Body on the Barstool. Ricki runs a bar, and one morning as she walks in, she finds a dead body—murdered—sitting at the bar… The book is a fast-paced cozy mystery, with funny dialogues, and good plot twists. If you like cozy mysteries, you won’t be disappointed.

Welcome Laurel. You have written quite a number of books. You have published mysteries/thrillers under the name Laurel Heidtman, and a few cozy mystery/romance novels as Lolli Powell. Can you introduce some of your work?

As Laurel Heidtman, I have three books published in my Eden mystery series: Catch A Falling Star, Bad Girls, and A Convenient Death. Each novel can stand alone, although the characters’ personal stories continue to evolve in each new book. The Eden series is set in the fictitious college town of Eden, Kentucky, near Daniel Boone National Forest. I also have a thriller, Whiteout, that takes place in Daniel Boone National Forest (with a few scenes in Lexington).

As Lolli Powell, I have a contemporary romance, The Boy Next Door, set in Kentucky, and a romantic suspense, The Wrong Kind of Man, set in Indiana. I also have two books, The Body on the Barstool and Whiskey Kills, in the Top Shelf cozy mystery series. This series is set in a fictitious Ohio River town in southern Ohio about halfway between West Virginia and Indiana. I write the Top Shelf books in first person, while all the others are in third person.

Some of your books are set in Kentucky, where you live. The Body on the Barstool is set in Ohio, and I thought your descriptions were wonderful. How do you go about writing about the setting of a book?

I’m from Ohio originally—although farther west than the setting of the Top Shelf mysteries—so I’m familiar with both states. To get some details right about the geography of an area, I use the Internet. I also use that to verify details about plants, sunset/sunrise times in a particular month, the way locals speak (for example, pop versus soda), common surnames, etc. I think that descriptions of settings should be painted in broad strokes—just enough detail to give the reader a feel for the place, but not so much that it bogs down the story.

Is there a genre you like writing more than others, or do you enjoy mixing them up?

I’ve enjoyed doing all of the genres I’ve tried so far, and I’d like to try other genres. I’ve probably enjoyed doing the cozy mysteries most, though. I do them in first person and find I prefer that, plus I do my best to make them funny (sarcastic humor). I wasn’t sure I could write humor, but readers seem to be “getting it,” so I guess I’m succeeding.

How do you typically get your ideas for a book and does the story change much during writing?

I honestly don’t know how I get most of the ideas. My latest one, A Convenient Death, was sparked by two murders that happened while I was a police officer. A convenience store clerk and a customer were murdered one night, and the case was never solved. I started with this, but I made up everything else about the victims and the crime. Sometimes news stories provide the germ of an idea, such as stories about human trafficking and the Dark Web (both of which play a part in my book, Bad Girls).

However, most of the time, a story just seems to pop into my mind, which means, I suppose, that my subconscious is busy working while I’m not aware of it. I call my subconscious “the boys in the basement.” When I hit a stumbling block during the course of writing a book, I don’t worry too much about it, and sure enough, a few days later “the boys” present a solution.

And, yes, the story sometimes changes during writing. Any fiction writer will tell you that characters seem to take on a mind of their own once they’re on the page. I often say it’s as if I’m channeling the characters and just writing what they tell me.

Your bio describes a very interesting range of careers. A dancer, a bartender, a police officer, a registered nurse and a technical writer. Not to mention two English degrees? How did you end up doing so many different things? And where did you find the time? 

I had plenty of time to do all these things because I’m old now! 🙂 I spent my twenties working as a dancer and sometimes bartender, as well as attending college part-time (I started at age twenty-two and graduated with a B.A. in English with a Creative Writing emphasis six months before my thirtieth birthday). The dancing and bartending jobs supported me and paid for college. This was in the late sixties/early seventies, and those jobs paid better than most jobs for women.

I was close to graduation when the police officer husband of a fellow student told me his department had to hire their first female patrol officers or lose federal funding. I took the civil service exam, did well, passed all the other tests (background, psychological, etc.) and was hired. The department ran their own recruit school to train their new hires. I spent my thirties as a police officer.

I finally burned out on police work and decided to go to graduate school for a Master of Technical and Scientific Communication degree (fancy way of saying technical writing). I got a paid internship that turned into a job with what was then Armco Steel. I was never so bored in my life and was not unhappy when the duties of the department I was in were transferred to another state and I was laid off.

My husband was three years away from retirement by then. We decided we’d buy a motorhome and travel, but I was too young to retire. Travel nurses were in demand at the time, so I decided quite logically that nursing would be the perfect career. Back to school again, this time for an associate degree. Before my husband retired and we bought an RV, we fell over a gorgeous home overlooking a lake in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, and there went the motorhome/travel dream. I got a job on the mental health unit at the Lexington V.A. and worked as a nurse there and later at another hospital for the next four years.

I always read the Sunday classifieds and happened to see a job posting for a technical writing job for a Lexington company that wrote software for large court systems. Thanks to the combination of my police background and my master’s degree, I got the job to write manuals and online help. That technical writing job was more interesting than my first one, the pay was good, and the sweetener was they let me work at home most of the time. I stayed with them until I was eligible for early social security, at which point I retired. Now I’m finally writing fiction, which is what I should have been doing all along. I’m not sorry my life played out this way, though, because the different experiences help with writing, I think.

By the way, those aren’t the only jobs I’ve had. They’re just the ones that have lasted the longest. I always say I have a short attention span. 🙂

What made you want to write novels?

I was an only child, we lived in the country, and we didn’t get a television until I was 13. I had other children to play with sometimes, but not every day, so books became my daily “playmates.” I loved reading, and as far back as I can remember, I wanted to write fiction. For too many years, I allowed life to get in the way of that.

What do you like best about being an indie author?

I’m a control freak when it comes to my own life, so I like the ability to publish what and when I want.

Are you working on something right now?

I published A Convenient Death, the third book in my Eden mystery series, at the end of January, and I’ve started on Name Your Poison, the third book in my Top Shelf cozy mystery series. I hope to release it no later than April.

Thank you Laurel! I look forward to reading more of your books. Check out Laurel’s website, blog, or Lolli Powell’s website to find out more. 

 

Asmat Bis Poles and Rituals of the Dead

This time, a guest blog from my good friend and AWESOME writer Jennifer S. Alderson, who has a new book coming out! Read all about Zelda Richardson’s new adventure in Rituals of the Dead, a book filled with mystery, art and anthropology. This time Jennifer takes us back to historic Papua New Guinea, where headhunters once roamed…

JenniferSAldersonAuthorPhoto_Twitter

I am so excited to announce the impending release of my third novel, Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery. Set in Amsterdam and Papua New Guinea, it combines anthropology, art, and history into one thrilling adventure. It’s been a joy to write because the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

The exhibition central to my artifact mystery is based on an actual exhibition of bis poles entitled Bis poles: Sculptures of the Rainforest. They are ancestor objects akin to Native American totem poles. They were created to honor dead ancestors during a six-week long ‘bis’ or headhunting ceremony.

Those featured in this exhibition were primarily collected from Asmat, a region of Papua New Guinea whose villagers (also called ‘Asmat’) are famous for their exquisite wood carvings. Bis poles are considered to be the highpoint of Asmat art. Since Westerners discovered them in the 1930s, they have been a much desired cultural artifact, purchased by private collectors and museums. Though most were acquired through barter and long negotiations, too many of the Asmat objects in public museum collections worldwide were stolen by opportunistic Westerners.

 

 

I worked on this exhibition in 2008, as a collection researcher for the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s anthropological museum. I was tasked with conducting archival and photographic research into the poles, as well as a number of legendary Dutch missionaries and anthropologists active in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s through the 1960s. During my research, I came across so many bizarre stories about headhunting raids, brave missionaries, crazy explorers and daring anthropologists. It felt like I had the basis for a great mystery in my hands.

My hope in writing this book is not only to entertain readers, but also inspire them to learn more about the Asmat and their fascinating culture. I can’t wait to share Rituals of the Dead with mystery and thriller fans!

Thanks Jennifer! I can’t wait to read it. Learn more about Rituals of the Dead below, and find out how to order it!

RitualsoftheDead_500wRituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery

Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Alderson’s upcoming art mystery thriller, Rituals of the Dead, Book Three of the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series.

This time she’s working at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam on an exhibition of bis poles from the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea – the same area where a famous American anthropologist disappeared in 1962. When his journals are found inside one of the bis poles, Zelda is tasked with finding out about the man’s last days and his connection to these ritual objects.

Zelda is pulled into a world of shady anthropologists, missionaries, art collectors, gallery owners, and smugglers, where the only certainty is that sins of the past are never fully erased.

Join Zelda on her next quest as she grapples with the anthropologist’s mysterious disappearance fifty years earlier, and a present-day murderer who will do everything to prevent her from discovering the truth.

Expected release date March 2018.

Pre-order Rituals of the Dead now via Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords. 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rituals-Dead-Artifact-Adventures-Richardson-ebook/dp/B0795Z3HRX/

iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery/id1332496345?mt=11

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nl/en/ebook/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery

NOOK: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rituals-of-the-dead-jennifer-s-alderson/1127732017?ean=2940155064152

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/771033

About the Author: Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

You can find Jennifer on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or her website.

Quills and Pencils

First, let me wish you a happy 2018! It should prove an interesting year. I am working on book 3 and 4 of the Dunnhill series, and hopefully they will both be ready before the year is through.

I love writing. Modern technology, and specifically the DELETE-key are good friends of mine. My writing process involves a lot of delete-rewrite-delete-rewrite. Can you imagine writing four hundred years ago—without that DELETE-key? So, no complaining here, we have it easy.

I assume Shakespeare used a quill. Quills were often made from the wing feathers of a big bird, like a goose. I suppose you didn’t have to wrestle one for it, but still. Then you had to prepare the quill, after which you could write with it after dipping it in ink. The metal dip pen, which replaced the quill, made an entrance in the nineteenth century. It didn’t require sharpening, or chasing a goose, but you still had to dip.

So, which ink would you use? The most popular one was something called “iron gall ink”, which, to me, sounds quite unappealing, since it reminds me of a gall bladder.  It actually has nothing to do with that. The oak gall, or oak apple, is an 1-2 inch “apple” on an oak leaf that arises from the secretions of the tree reacting to the gall wasp larva, after the wasp lays an egg in the leaf bud. Apparently, the gall contains tannic acid, which you can extract by crushing and soaking the dried galls. After you strain the extract, you add some ferrous sulfate and voilá, you have ink. Quite honestly, I am still baffled someone thought this one up—making ink from oak galls?

Roald Dahl, whose books I am extremely fond of, wrote (and rewrote) many of them with a pencil. I can feel my hand cramping up just at the thought of it.

Speaking of pencils, for the past two years I had to buy pencil lead for my son’s school supplies, which always left me a little confused as to why it’s called “lead.” It never made sense to me, since it’s obviously made out of graphite.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a nerd, but I like to know where words come from. Apparently, after discovering a large graphite deposit in England around 1500 AD, people first thought it was a form of lead. They noticed the lead, or “black lead” as they called it, was excellent material to write with. The wooden holder was invented, because graphite is rather soft and brittle. The name “graphite” wasn’t given until 1879, and comes from the Greek “graphein” — to write.

The pencil, if you are dying to know, comes from the Latin word “penis” (which means tail) or more precisely, the diminutive “peniculus,” which referred to the artist’s fine brush of camel hair. I don’t think I will ever look at a pencil the same way. Or a tail for that matter.

Obviously, being a writer in current times is great. I think I will return to my laptop and delete-rewrite some more words…

Keep checking in for more upcoming book news, or follow me on Facebook!

Author Interview – Sarah Stovell

This month I interviewed Sarah Stovell, the author of Exquisite, a psychological thriller. Exquisite was a great read. It was not too long, not too short, and had just the right amount of suspense. I can’t say too much about it—it would ruin the fun. The story is about two women; one is an aspiring writer, the other a happily married, well-known author.  The book alternates between the two women, as they describe their life and their deepening relationship. But, as you’ll find out, something is clearly not right… 

Welcome Sarah. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am about to get a puppy because I am that stereotype of a woman whose children are now at school and I clearly have a compulsion to keep on cleaning up shit. That’s all you need to know.

What made you go into writing?

I didn’t much fancy any of the other jobs.

Exquisite is a psychological thriller. Your other books aren’t. What made you change genre?

Money.

Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?

I’m not a fan of the word ‘inspiration’. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt inspired as such. I get ideas when I’m out walking. I try and walk at least four miles day, and that’s when I get small ideas that slowly, after a lot of thought, develop into bigger ideas.

Is there a genre you prefer, as a writer? As a reader?

As a reader, my tastes are fairly eclectic but veer towards women’s literary fiction. As a writer, I like to produce a page-turner.

Your descriptions of the Lake District in Exquisite are beautiful. Locations of your previous books The Night Flower and Heartwood include Tasmania and America. Did you do anything special for your research on all these places?

I set ‘Exquisite’ in the Lake District because it is a place I love. I really, really love it. I could wax lyrical about the Lake District for literally a million hours. I plan to live there one day with a Border Collie and he and I will tramp the fells for ten hours a day. I can’t wait… Anyway, what was the question? The other books … Well, I just read about the places and imagined them. I actually don’t think that is the best way to do setting. It makes a massive difference when you are psychologically connected to a place, as I am to the Lake District.

Your books seem to revolve primarily around women (who are often damaged in some way), and female-female relationships, like the mother-daughter bond, friendship or even obsession. What is the appeal for you about these female characters and their interaction with other women?

Yes, I am very drawn to female relationships. Partly, this is because I am a woman, but also because the most significant (by which I mean complicated, not necessarily fulfilling) relationships in my life have been with women. I am interested in the deep bonds of friendship that women often forge. I also interested in mother-daughter relationships, which can be the most fraught relationships around but can also, if you get it right as a mother, be incredible (so far, I have a great relationship with my daughter, but she is only eight, so there’s a long way to go). I am also interested in romantic relationships between women, how loving and nurturing they can be, but also how terrible. I wanted to look at female violence, which is often psychological in action, but no less wounding for that.

Are you working on a new book? (And if so, can you tell us about it?)

I am almost finished! It is about an eighteen-year-old woman named Annie, who is impoverished and desperate and who goes to work as a nanny for a very wealthy family because her mother has gone missing and Annie has been evicted for not paying the rent. While there, something happens to a child in her care…

 

I am looking forward to reading it. Thanks so much, Sarah!