Divorced psychologist Liz Cooper thinks she left her emotional baggage behind when she moves into her new home, but the past comes back to haunt her in a bitter clash with a former rival whose murder casts a shadow on Liz as suspect #1. She enlists her family, friends, and a colorful defense attorney to clear to her name, but only Liz’s boyfriend—occult expert Nick Garfield—may be able to decipher the cryptic, devilish clue the murderer left behind.
Literary cold readers are unsung heroes, the Yodas of the writing world that read first or second drafts—the proud mess we create before the final manuscript. My cold readers saved my tail more often than I can count, at times seeming to understand my characters better than I do. I pour over every critical comment, agree to disagree, let them change my mind, and trust their judgment in the stretch. I don’t know what I would do without them. My current group of cold readers is golden, but occasionally other people offer to join in on the fun.
“Let me edit your book for you. All my friends at work use me to check everything they write. I have the best grammar and punctuation.”
“I’ll read your book for you in advance. Send me a copy and I’ll give you ideas.”
Though I respect and appreciate the gesture, my response is generally a non-committal nod or a gentle thank you because giving an unedited novel to an acquaintance seems something like leaving a baby with a new sitter. Will they care as much as I do? Will they be wise, smart, truthful?
One time I gave in, and received my funniest review ever. A mystery-loving friend had helped me with research on a tricky and unfamiliar subject for my second novel, Bruja Brouhaha. When he offered to read the final draft, I decided his input on my treatment of the topic would be valuable. Handing him a printed copy for comment, I told him I had a month before the submission deadline.
“I can’t wait to read it,” he said as we parted.
A week passed, no word. Okay. He’s busy. I get that. Two weeks in, I was a little nervous but still had time to correct flaws when he got back to me. Six days before deadline, I lived in panic. He hated the novel. That’s why he dodged my friendly “How are you?” email. Two days before deadline (I still had time!) curiosity overcame self-respect and I called him.
During our “Hey, how’s it going?” chitchat, not word about the manuscript. I felt like a supplicating fool but the paranoid writer in me HAD to know. “Um, did you read my book?”
“Oh! Didn’t I tell you? I had the flu. I read a few pages then got too sick to finish. I will. I promise. But the paper you printed it on is FANTASTIC. What kind is it?”
The paper??? Head-smacking special stock from writer hell. Fortunately, days earlier my trusted cold readers gave me a thumbs up on the last draft. I submitted the manuscript to my editor and moved on. The novel, Bruja Brouhaha, recently won the Watson award at Left Coast Crime.
Tuesday, May 7, marks the release of my third novel, Hex on the Ex. Divorced psychologist Liz Cooper thinks she left her emotional baggage behind when she moves into her new home, but the past comes back to haunt her in a bitter clash with a former rival whose murder casts a shadow on Liz as suspect #1. She enlists her family, friends, and a colorful defense attorney to clear to her name, but only Liz’s boyfriend—occult expert Nick Garfield—may be able to decipher the cryptic, devilish clue the murderer left behind.
I hope you enjoy the read!
The connecting crack of a bat, or a baseball thunk-ing into a catcher’s glove make me smile. Though I can’t judge a curve ball from a slider, I’ve been a baseball fan since the days Earl “Holy Cow!” Gillespie called the play-by-play on the radio for the Milwaukee Braves. Yes, the Milwaukee Braves, back when my hometown ended the National Anthem singing, “…and the home of the Bravessss.” As a kid I memorized Teresa Brewer’s “I Love Mickey” off a vinyl—hey, even though Mantle was a dreaded Yankee, it was a baseball song. The old Ken Burns PBS BASEBALL series stands proud in my DVD collection. Bull Durham is one of my all-time favorite movies. Can’t wait to see 42 when the film comes out next weekend.
The Braves bailed out of Milwaukee long ago, and so did I. Now I cheer for the team representing my zip code: a Mets and Yankee fan when I lived in New York; a Dodger fan now (though I check Angel scores too.) I’ll watch a game from anywhere in the stadium from the nosebleed top decks to the baseline field boxes. I was in the Dodger Stadium left field bleachers when Kirk Gibson smacked his game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series.
Along with the Zen atmosphere at the ballpark, box score stats to track, the thrill of a good game, crowd watching and hot-dog-eating during a slow game, and the always hope for a winning rally in the bottom of the ninth to surprise us all—baseball comes with a superbly bizarre stack of superstitions that fit right into the occult theme of my Mind for Murder Mystery series. Writing a baseball game into my new novel HEX ON THE EX was a natch. And so much fun.
How wild was it researching baseball superstitions dating back to the early 1900s? Mind-twisting. Some players eat the same meal before every game. Only use lucky bats. Wear lucky gloves. Shower in uniform after a loss to erase evil spirits. No showering or changing clothes during a winning streak. Never step on the chalk between third base and home plate. Repetitive warm-up rituals on the mound. Odd dances at the plate. Curses and lucky charms.
Of the three books I read on baseball superstitions, Mike Blake’s The Incomplete Book of Baseball Superstitions, Rituals, and Oddities provided the most entertaining facts. According to Blake: former Boston Red Sox batting leader Wade Boggs is a chickentarian, claiming, “I believe, for me, there are hits in every chicken I eat.” Ex-Cubs slugger Leon Durham had his mother pray over his bats. Oriole Ken Singleton always picked up three pebbles before batting, tossed them over his shoulder, and dug in “to remind me that I have three strikes and that I should be selective.” Tony Gonzales, Cuban-born Phillies outfielder, dressed a doll in the opposing team’s uniform then stuck it with pins or bashed it with his bat.
Cardinals Pepper Martin & Ducky Medwick, Yankee Lou Gehrig, White Sox fielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, and Cub Fred Mitchell collected women’s hairpins as good luck charms—finding a hairpin on game day was a winning omen. Personally, I hadn’t seen (or noticed?) a hairpin for years. The day after I read about the superstition I spotted a hairpin on the carpet at the gym. You better believe I kept it, along with the five others I found since then.
The baseball game chapter in HEX ON THE EX wound up being a blast to write, with many of my favorite scenes. I even snuck in the history of the Chicago Cubs’ Billy Goat curse. If you have a free afternoon and a yen for roasted peanuts, call me. Let’s go out to the ball game.
And if a hairpin falls in your path, pick it up. This could be your lucky day.
My daily writing output runs erratic. Some days I’m a scene machine, other days I agonize for hours on a sentence I end up deleting. I’m positive I missed something in the writer’s handbook—the password to the club, the secret handshake, or a hoodoo brew to make my fingers fly over the keyboard (and I’m not talking coffee.) In an effort to find a clue to consistency I became a process junkie. I love hearing how others work, especially writers like Daryl Wood Gerber, the award-winning author of two mystery series who writes thrillers in her spare time. What is spare time?
Today marks the release of To Brie or Not to Brie, the fourth novel in the bestselling Cheese Shop Mystery series Daryl writes as Avery Aames. I coaxed Daryl/Avery into sharing her process and a few of her writing secrets with me.
RS: Four novels in three years, another release coming in July, and a thriller in the pipeline. Do tell—how do you organize your daily writing process?
DWG: First, I set up how long I have for the whole book, from outline to finish, adding in a full reread, and then another reread. Once I’ve established that, I start a book. I wake around 5:30 to 6:00 and try to write for 2 hours without any interruptions. That seems to be best for me. I’m almost in my dream-state at the time of the morning. The negative voices have not yet gotten hold of me. I follow an outline that has the basics of a scene/chapter laid out. If I get “stuck” at any time, I might reread the chapter before and see if that spurs me to write the new chapter. If that doesn’t work, I get on my feet and pace and ask questions about conflict. Where is the conflict, where is the love? And then I ask what if…? If that doesn’t work (you’re getting the idea that writing is not easy!!), I take out my timeline outline and fill in details. [That timeline includes things like all the cheeses or cookbooks I reference, clues, red herrings, etc.] At least I’m writing something. Around 8 I break for breakfast, exercise and email. I try to get back to writing by 10 a.m. and write for 2 more hours. Understand, I’m not a machine, so there are many days where this schedule gets shaken up. But putting my rear in the chair is so important. In the afternoons, I often go to a coffee shop, slip in my earpods, turn on classic or jazz music, and go through what I wrote in the morning. Those moments are total delights.
Do you always follow an outline or will you let characters veer off on their own?
DWG: I follow an outline, BUT a character can veer and they often do. It’s like having a road map. I feel comfortable going from point A to point B, but if I see a nice picnic spot on the side of the road I might stop. If there’s a sign for a wine or cheese tasting down the road, it’s a done deal. LOL. Sometimes my characters “tell me” that they have to diverge and I do listen. I’m not a writing tyrant.
One of the writing mantras I heard early on was read, read, read. What are your reading habits? Do you read for pleasure or consider it part of the job and take notes?
DWG: This depends. I read for pleasure when I’m on vacation. I have a couple of authors that I buy specifically for vacation reading. When I read for work, meaning I need to learn from a style or I’m reading to judge a contest, I take notes, I dog-ear pages, I underline. I can be quite the student when necessary. I’ve learned so much from other writers. I try to grasp voice and tone, and I weigh why that book is a bestseller and the other one (sold at the same time) is not. It’s important to understand all aspects of the business.
DWG: As an actress, I learned how to take rejection. I was talented, and I was successful and, yes, I was lucky, too, but there were times I cried myself to sleep wondering why they didn’t “like” me. The whole worth thing comes into play. Regarding the series, another producer put my idea into action and made it a hit. I was thrilled to get through the door at the time. Writing TV and then screenplays, I really started to understand the three-act structure. I still apply that to my work. I try to have thrilling chapter ends so the reader will turn the page and not “switch channels” during the commercial break.
I love your “switch channels” theory!
I have a few short questions left to get to know you even better—
Mac or PC? Mac.
What else is on your desk? Books, bookmarks, and inspirational sayings. A microphone so I can record a chapter or short story. There’s a “Say Cheese” mug (it’s new). On the other side it says, “Life is great; cheese makes it better.” ~Avery Aames
Complete silence or background music? I love music. I can write in complete silence, too.
Favorite writing snack? Chocolate – Hershey’s Kisses or Dove Dark Chocolate.
And for fun? Swim, walk, golf, practice ballroom dancing in my kitchen…great floor! Gardening, cooking, reading, taking photographs
Most embarrassing song on your iPod: “I Honestly Love You”…but Hugh Jackman is singing it.
Fave film: Romancing the Stone, It Happened One Night, Godfather.
Guiltier pleasure: Wine and cheese
Guiltiest pleasure: Wine and cheese and chocolate – in bed.
Hah! Sounds like the perfect end to an exhausting day. I think I’ll try your early rise and on the computer trick to see if my internal editor/critic will stay behind in bed for a few hours. And for full disclosure, I admit I occasionally sing “I Honestly Love You” out loud with the radio in my car.
Thank you so much for taking us behind the curtain into your process, Daryl. I wish you continued success.
As AVERY AAMES, Daryl writes the Agatha Award-winning, nationally bestselling Cheese Shop Mystery series featuring a cheese shop owner who cares about family above all else. Set in the quaint, fictional town of Providence, Ohio. As DARYL WOOD GERBER, she writes A Cookbook Nook Mystery series featuring a cookbook store owner who is an avid reader and admitted foodie. Set on the coast of California & debuts July 2013. Daryl’s short stories have been nominated for the Agatha and other awards.
It’s been a while. The bulk of my conversations are of the fictional variety so I thought I’d drop you a line too. You know, in case you plan to stop by my house toward the end of the month? (Bring the bag. I’ll leave my screen saver on in the window to guide you.) S, I’ve been good—wrote every day-ish, avoided adverbs and hyperbole like a spectacularly brilliant writer, made my deadlines-ish, promoted until I exploded, bought books, and suited up to show up on call.
I’m aware some of my old holiday wish lists included diamonds and designer shoes. Not this season. Diamonds catch on sweats, and Converse sneakers are far more comfy than Louboutins for toes stretched out on the couch beneath a laptop.
Good fortune filled my year—Agatha, Anthony, and Eureka award nominations, along with my second novel release. This holiday I’d be content with a cup of eggnog, a plate of Mexican Wedding cakes, and a stocking full of stuff I hate leaving the house for, like two cases of paper, a printer that never runs out of ink, a supply of postage stamps and bubble envelopes, and (if you’re thinking extravagance) new stationery. Feel like going really crazy? A black AmEx card would utterly inspire me to travel farther than bed to bath to desk to kitchen to desk to bed. And laughter. I always love the gift of laughter.
Truth? I have everything I need. Unless you want to stop by for cookies, don’t look twice when you pass my house on your way to surprise the kiddies and the less fortunate. I’ve been blessed with whimsy, imagination, wonderful friends & family, an amazing editor, a very cool agent, and brilliant critique partners.
In other words never mind, big guy—I’m good to go!
May your days be merry and bright,
and may your stockings be filled
with toe wiggling delight.
“I’m so glad I saw you, Rochelle. I just finished your new novel,” an acquaintance recently said. She showed me the copy of BRUJA BROUHAHA in her designer carryall. “I loved the story.”
I flashed back to nights of tearing my hair out over some damn scene to perfect the plot, and the full year I spent completing the novel—not even counting the subsequent efforts of my editor and publishing staff. The approval on the woman’s face and in her voice made the hard work worth the effort. “Gosh, thank you so much,” I said, beaming. “Would you like me to sign your copy for you?”
“Oh, no, this copy isn’t mine. It’s Jane’s. She liked your novel so much she lent it to me to read. I’m giving it to Marylou, I know she’ll love it, too. We’re going to pass your book around to all of our friends.”
Um, cool. Sure. Fabulous. Free advertising, baby.
We all do the share thing, the pass-around-a-good-thing thing. In fact, my neighbor’s Mad Men Season 1 DVD is on loan upstairs in my player. Word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising available. We promote hand-outs and encourage contests, review copies, previews, and goody bag donations to drum up talk.
Sharing is friendly. In kindergarten we learned sharing is good. Plus, the economy sucks and the budget-stretched consumer deserves a break. Passing around the already-paid-for-once-stuff gives the creators additional free advertising.
Disappointment over a few lost sales might be considered nervy, perhaps greedy. But then again, free advertising was a justification I heard from students in a Computer Science class discussion on sharing copyrighted software. Free advertising was an excuse given to the music business when Napster introduced peer-to-peer file sharing and sent an industry into crisis.
The entitlement train left the station with the majority of the 18+ crowd long ago. But I have this wild idea on how to teach young students the value of intellectual property: assign a semester-eating term paper accounting for something dramatic like 50% of their entire grade. Make the topic demanding, creative, time-consuming, rigorous. On the day the students turn in their work, bring local authors, songwriters, screenwriters, artists, and software developers in to swipe the finished papers off the students’ desks, thanking and complimenting the kids profusely for their efforts.
“What about our grades?” a student may ask.
“Oh, that,” the artists and writers might say as they leave. “We don’t have anything to do with your grade. Thanks a ton for entertaining us. Can’t wait to copy these for our friends.”
“No. Stop. You have to give our papers to the teacher so we can get credit. We put in an entire semester creating those. We did the work. We earned the right to a grade. The grade affects GPA, and GPA affects college admission.”
*Note: I know I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. I returned my neighbor’s DVD. I’ll watch old Mad Men episodes via my Netflix subscription.
In my pre-eBook youth many years ago, I worked on 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan and walked home to my midtown apartment every night. One of my routes took me past a huge bookstore chain and, because I can’t resist a bookstore like I can’t resist a well-done order of fries, I always strolled inside to browse. Others may head straight to the bestseller wall, perhaps the biography, romance, sci-fi, or history sections. I made a beeline for mystery or non-fiction, depending on my mood. Hungry for adventure? Give me a mystery or a thriller and make it a series, please. Feeling a bit off? A selection of How-to-Snap-Out-of-Whatever or Quotes-to-Buck-Oneself-Up filled my arms at the cash register.
One late evening in the throes of literary ennui I wandered into the General Fiction section. To me, taking a chance in General Fiction was like online dating—what I saw on the profile (book jacket and title) rarely represented who walked into the café. By the middle of the first date latté (Chapter Three) I’d be planning an exit (DNF).
I cruised the wall of books—nope, nope, nope. Could it be? Would I walk out without a book? Would I be sentenced to, God forbid, prime time television?
An illustrated cover with a Post WWI-styled couple lit a twinkle in my eye. He sipped tea, with she smoking and twirling her pearls, and a snobbish butler offering a tray. A screwball comedy fan from way back, I took P.G. Wodehouse’s Much Obliged, Jeeves, to the register and—What ho!— began my infatuation with Wodehouse’s world of Bertie, Jeeves, Stiffy, Bingo, Gussie, and the aunts, et al. Seduced by a cover.
Wodehouse may not suit everyone’s taste. There was a definite language barrier to shellac as I read over my eggs and b with a rainbow round my shoulders. Once I conquered the pie-faced, plug-ugly task of suspending disbelief, I realized I was onto a good thing. I cheerfully ankled to the bookstore weekly until I exhausted their larder of Plum’s novels. Needless to say, but I will nonetheless, on my first jaunt to London I scuttled to a local bookshop and bought a copy of every Wodehouse novel unavailable across the pond.
I’ve been told Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry are genius as Bertie and Jeeves on PBS, but they’ll never replace the pair in my imagination. Happily, Simon Brett’s Blotto and Twinks series re-tickled my fancy for British humor, complete with a new language to absorb, and adding (to my delight) mystery with “the unavoidable presence of a know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth.” Well done, Brett.
But here’s the fly-in-the-ointment, the troubling aspect, the cloud over the picnic: What if back when I strolled into that NY bookstore for a diverting tome, I had instead been able to surf the ‘net for entertaining kibble to read on my Nook/Kindle/iPad/computer? Would I have tired of looking through 41,555,250 book titles before I reached the “W’s”? Never bothered to explore beyond the 101,970 offerings of Mysteries & Thrillers, or the 917,543 non-fiction selections? It hurts my heart to think Bertie, Jeeves, and I may never have met.
Visit a brick and mortar bookstore. Fall in love with a stranger on the shelves.
Three weeks ago I attended the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society Summer Bash, won the Best Hawaiian outfit contest, and did a live reading of the first scene in my new novel, BRUJA BROUHAHA. My winning outfit wasn’t captured for the ages, but my live read is posted here on YouTube.
I set my latest novel BRUJA BROUHAHA in current day Westlake near MacArthur Park, a neighborhood dubbed the “Champs-Élysées” of Los Angeles in the early 20th century, and then romanticized by Jimmy Webb in his classic 1985 song. Today the multi-cultural area is a mixture of Hispanic and Asian culture with the park and the shops on Alvarado Street providing a weekend tourist attraction. During daylight, that is. You see, the area is also rife with gangs—a fact of life in contemporary L.A. and an unavoidable evil in my story’s plot.
To paraphrase Gracie Allen, I learn everything I know from writing about things I don’t know anything about. So how did an Anglo gal in Studio City write fiction about mid-city gangs with authority? Did I need to write with authority? Damn straight, I did.
My years in the record biz talking to rappers helped, but rappers with recording contracts aren’t exactly living on the street anymore. It’s like asking the CEO where the paper is for the Xerox machine. I have friends who grew up in gang-infested neighborhoods—fifty years ago. Do you know how many slang swaps occurred in the past fifty years? You do? Groovy.
I needed the real deal on gang research, fast, and I found it, homie. One sunny Saturday morning while out-of-towners in Hollywood boarded buses to see homes of dead movie stars, I signed a waiver and climbed onto the Los Angeles Gang Tour bus. Me, three tourists, a local couple, and two members of the DA’s office took off with our crew of ex-con guides for a journey past the notorious landmarks in the history of L.A. gang life.
Our first locale was the last stop for most gang members: the Twin Towers jail and the high security federal prison in the heart of downtown—one or both former residences for our guides. We moved on, slowing near the Los Angeles River bed (ground central for graffiti) for an education on types of tagging and the more experienced “flaring”—both felonies. We cruised by the Pueblo del Rio housing projects—home for the Bloods and a current hotbed of illegal activity.
As we toured ground zero for the Watts Riots I learned the language of tattoos: A clown—smile now, cry later. A skull—mess with me and die. A dollar sign—I’m in business.
The spirit of the tour shone through in the personality of our guides—Max, Dennis, Scorpio, Melvin, and Renee—ex-cons who turned their lives around to dedicate their time to gang intervention. They candidly shared experiences growing up in gang life, a generational curse passed from father to son, brother to brother, cousin to cousin. From learning street survival as “puppies” at age eight, to stealing Pumas in junior high—like most other kids in their neighborhood they became trapped in a cycle of crime, caught, and sent up. “The diet was a spoonful of hatred,” said Scorpio who spent 23 of his 39 years in jail.
Some of the gang life questions I needed answered for book research drew curious looks (Why is this woman asking for specifics on drive-bys?) but the guides were cooperative and helpful, answering nearly everything I asked. “Do gang members still call other gang members ‘homies’?” “Yeah, but only our friends. We call the other guys ‘rivals’.”
Like most research adventures, I gathered far more information than I used in the novel. I learned just enough to feel confident the gang representation in BRUJA BROUHAHA will dodge a woofing*.
*woofing=verbal ass whooping by a gang member.
BRUJA BROUHAHA—a murder mystery enveloped in mayhem, a puzzling disappearance, and a vindictive Santeria hex—is being released this Tuesday, August 7.
“They sicken of the calm who knew the storm.” Dorothy Parker, “Fair Weather”, Sunset Gun 1928.
I pulled up one of my favorite Dorothy Parker quotes to open my maiden post here because—like most of Parker’s brilliant observations—she exquisitely defines my current frame of mind:
The calm is driving me insane.
I recently completed writing my third novel, effectively quieting the tempest of rewriting, editing, tweaking, and brooding while buried in the world of my story. After I hit “Send” to my editor’s email address I waltzed around the house patting myself on the back a bit—Done!—and then boarded a plane for a much-needed week of distraction, culminating with my high school reunion. Nothing erases the shattering doubts or tempers the self-congratulatory lauds of hitting a novel deadline like an escape to the Midwest for a few days with relatives and old friends who don’t give a whit about the challenge of moving a protag from one room to the next. Another word for Walking? Shoot me. For days, the most frequent question posed by my nearest and dearest from my hometown after “When’s the next book coming?” (August 7) was “Which movie stars do you know in Los Angeles?” (None.) Yep, days of reminiscing and a trip to the Cedarburg Strawberry Festival pretty much blotted out the old lingering concerns about how many times I echoed my sleuth unlocking her front door in the novel.
Now I’m back home at my desk and bored out of my mind. Huh? For the past nine months I dreamt of having nothing to do. I ached for leisurely days away from my computer screen to take long lunches with friends. Indulge in afternoon naps. Read a book or five or ten. Take up martial arts or go back to dance class. Learn how to cook. Cook. Go to movies during the day. Lazy walks at the ocean. Tour the local Haunted Mansions.
Yet now that I have the time to relax, the pull of the blank page is tugging at me like a kid passing the window of a toy store. Is it possible I like swilling in creative angst? My mind, instead of drifting toward the beach, keeps me awake plotting the next mystery. Can’t wait to create a new world of characters, take field trips to photograph potential settings, find a different way to murder another victim or two (fictionally, in case you wandered to this page without realizing this is a writers’ blog), scheme the twists, carve the motives. You know—all the fun components of writing.
I miss the torture (I didn’t say that out loud) and the thrill. Plus, I’m haunted by something John Grisham said in a Today Show interview years ago: “A real writer writes every day.” Really, John? Maybe if I just write one or two sentences…
And so, I’m presenting fellow writers with a question: Is it wise to take a calming creative break, or a must to exercise the muse daily like a pet Rottweiler? How long do you wait between projects? Spill!