I was delighted when Edith Maxwell agreed to chat with me about her Local Foods Mystery series (Kensington Publishing, 2013). I’m pleased to share that conversation with the readers of Birth of a Novel, but first, a little about Edith and her books. This series lets her relive her days as an organic farmer in Massachusetts, although murder in the greenhouse is new (thank goodness for that). A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die came out to critical acclaim last June. ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, which chronicles the murder of a CSA member after geek-turned-organic-farmer Cam Flaherty’s Farm-to-Table dinner, releases May 27. That’s all you need to know right now. There will more information about Edith after our chat. I promise.
When did you first know you were going to write professionally?
I’ve been writing professionally since I worked on the student newspaper and wrote for my town newspaper in high school. Then I went on to academic writing, more journalism, and a career writing technical documentation. But I first started writing novel-length fiction twenty years ago, and landed contracts with two different publishers in 2012.
What part of writing do you find most satisfying?
I love writing the first draft, especially when my characters do things I had not planned for them. But I also enjoy the revision process -self editing, crafting, polishing.
What part do you find most difficult?
Plot. It’s always a challenge to reveal just enough about the mystery so I am fair to the reader without giving it all away by page 100.
What comes first for you? Characters? Story? Setting?
Characters and setting. I follow my characters around and write down what they do. And then go back and fix the story so it all works.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere! A snipped of conversation in a restaurant. A news story. Walking in my historic town. Seeing the way a man on the sidewalk is dressed and how he moves.
Are your books based on personal experiences or are they completely fictitious?
The stories are all fictitious. In my Local Foods mysteries, though, I draw on what I learned during the years I was an organic farmer. In my Lauren Rousseau books I use what I know about academia, Quakers, and video editing. In my historic series, the Carriagetown Mysteries, I created a Quaker family who lives in my house in the late 1800s and attends the same Friends Meeting that I do. Also see previous answer!
Do you do a lot of research?
Depending on the book, I might use my own knowledge during the first draft and then go back and check facts. In the historic series, I spend time in the archives of two local libraries, on the internet, and in the Whittier Home Association library checking on things like when electric street lights replaced gas, when the local hospital was built, what working women’s shoes looked like, who John Greeleaf Whittier hung out with, and much more.
Tell us about ‘TIL DIRT DO US PART.
The produce is local – and so is the crime – when long-simmering tensions lead to murder following a festive dinner on Cam Flaherty’s farm. It’ll take a sleuth who knows the lay of the land to catch this killer. But no one ever said Cam wasn’t willing to get her hands dirty…
Autumn has descended on Westbury, Massachusetts, but the mood at the Farm-to-Table Dinner in Cam’s newly built barn is unseasonably chilly. Local entrepreneur Irene Burr made a lot of enemies with her plan to buy Westbury’s Old Town Hall and replace it with a textile museum-enough enemies to fill out a list of suspects when the wealthy widow turns up dead on a neighboring farm.
Even an amateur detective like Cam can figure out that one of the resident locavores went loco-at least temporarily-and settled a score with Irene. But which one? With the Fall harvest upon her, Cam must sift through a bushelful of possible killers that includes Irene’s estranged stepson, her disgruntled auto mechanic, and a fellow CSA subscriber who seems suspiciously happy to have the dead woman out of the way. The closer she gets to weeding out the culprit, the more Cam feels like someone is out to cut her harvest short. But to keep her own body out of the compost pile, she’ll have to wrap this case up quickly.
What other projects are in the works?
The second Lauren Rousseau mystery, BLUFFING IS MURDER, will be out from Barking Rain Press the late fall (2014). The Carriagetown Mysteries are not under contract, but the first Book, BREAKING THE SILENCE, is about two-thirds written. I just submitted the third Local Foods mystery, FARMED AND DANGEROUS, and hope Kensington Publishing will renew my contract for more books in the series. And I have another cozy mystery proposal in the work. So many ideas, so little time!
Do you have a schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in when you can?
Now that I’m a full-time fiction writer, I write every morning, because that’s when my creative brain is freshest. I use the afternoons for other writing-related business, like blog interviews and posts, marketing, planning, and so on.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I garden and cook, I take long brisk walks, and I read mysteries.
Pantster or plotter?
Mostly pantser, although when my editor requires a detailed synopsis of the next book, I plot it out and then more or less follow it.
What refreshes you creatively?
See answer on what I do when I’m not writing!
And now, as promised, here’s more about our guest:
A fourth-generation Californian, Maxwell has published short stories of murderous revenge, most recently in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold (Level Best Books, 2013) and Fish Nets (Wildside Press, 2013). The Stone Cold story, “Breaking the Silence,” won an Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction contest.
Edith Maxwell also authored Speaking of Murder (under the pseudonym Tace Baker), which features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau and campus intrigue after her sexy star student is killed (Barking Rain Press, 2012). Bluffing is Murder releases in late 2014. Edith holds a long-unused doctorate in linguistics, is a long-time member of Amesbury Friends Meeting, and and is currently writing a historical mystery set in 1888 Amesbury featuring Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, as well as John Greenleaf Whittier.
A mother, world traveler, and former technical writer, Edith lives in an antique house north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs every weekday with the rest of the Wicked Cozy Authors (wickedcozyauthors.com). You can also find her at http://www.edithmaxwell.com, at @edithmaxwell, and on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/EdithMaxwellAuthor.
My guest this week is Chrysa Smith, one of those very special people who write books for children.
by Chrysa Smith
You never know where writing is going to take you. This is what I tell students during my elementary school author visits. It might sound like some vague, empty-worded statement. But I can honestly say that it’s been tried and true for me, as I’ve spent the better part of the past three decades just ‘going’ where the road has taken me. And it’s all been due to a series of seemingly unrelated events that had something to do with writing.
The love for stringing words together came early. An essay contest in 8th grade won me some nice accolades, and I think it was then, that the light bulb went off and it may have been the first time I realized that I was really pretty good at something, other than kick ball and jumping rope. And it continued, through those blue book essay tests, a stint as my high school newspaper editor and some well-written college papers. Yet I never fancied myself a writer.
So, I majored in business; the thing to do in the 80’s. And I did learn some very useful skills–time management, marketing which as most writers know, is invaluable. And a little about finance, which I’m sure should have come with a minor in chutzpah, since I always want to be ‘nice’ when discussing my fees (ok, Catholic school girl guilt, but that’s another story altogether).
The jobs came in marketing and sales promotion. But my first gig landed me right back in a communications role as layoffs benefitted me in picking up the role of one of those less fortunate. And again, accolades came from my peers where writing was concerned. Yet again, I never fancied myself a writer. But the next gig was at a magazine, but back in a marketing role. Yet once more, I benefitted from my writing skills and was eventually promoted to Business Editor. But I still didn’t fancy myself a writer.
So I wound up in another sales promotional role in a very corporate environment, but was drawn to writing copy. And it was then that my second light bulb went off, and I realized that I might really desire a career in writing. It’s good that I was such a quick study, huh? So I left for a freelance writing career, but it was once more on the corporate side. And I can honestly say that I had little interest in the topics, even if the money was pretty good. So an entry into the magazine biz finally afforded me some very interesting assignments—speaking to international chefs, trips to resorts, fashion showrooms, ice cream parlors, trade shows. The pay wasn’t great, but I should have been more gracious when I look at today’s ridiculously insulting pay rates for a skill not shared by a large portion of the population.
So with technology, for me, there went the magazine business and I was left to figure out what the next trick would be. And it was then, with not much on my plate, that I began observing my dogs—-taking me back to my opening statement. When I looked around, there were some pretty funny events happening in my house, but I never really noticed. My pets always gave me joy, but they began to tickle me. So, hey, what about capturing their antics on paper? It would be fun to finally try a hand at fiction. But mostly, it was just for my own jollies.
I now knew I was a writer, but not a fiction writer. So I took some classes and was encouraged. I showed my work to some elementary school teachers and librarians and was encouraged. I got a further lesson in the rules that applied to children’s writing (loosely) and I went off on my own, having all that corporate marketing and sale promotion experience behind me, to go out on my own and take a ride with The Adventures of the Poodle Posse. That decision has led to a four book series, with over 8000 books sold (ok, not setting the world on fire, but not bad for a self-published, self-marketed set of juvenile fiction). But more importantly, I’ve found my calling.
As much, if not more than writing itself, I love the teaching–the visits. I love it when kids are mesmerized by my presentations, when the lightbulb goes off in their head, when they start furiously writing their own stories. I’m a writer. And finally, I can say it with my head held high. My life has let me tell the stories all around me. And even if my pockets aren’t as nourished as my sense of accomplishment and internal reward, know what? That’s my story.
And a great story it is. Thanks for sharing, Chrysa. I can’t think of a calling more noble than inspiring kids to express themselves with words.
You finished your book. It’s been edited and revised. It’s time to let it go. Easier said than done. It’s like sending your baby off to kindergarten – or to college. It never gets any easier. As parents/creators, we’re never 100% sure we’ve done all we can. Yet, from the moment books and babies are conceived, we know sooner or later we’re going to have to push them out of the nest. So … deep breath … you push the appropriate buttons and release your book.
The one thing you cannot do is rest. If no one hears about your book, no one will read it. So you tell all your friends about it – and hope they’ll tell their friends. You tweet, twitter, peep – and hope someone is paying attention. You blog and you brag (just a little) – and hope you’re not being obnoxious. That’s where I am with Lethal Journal. It’s out there – available in e and print format. I’ve done all I can for this book.
Uh… maybe there is one more thing: here’s a link – http://www.amazon.com/dp/1497460050
Time to start a new book. Every time I get to this place, I think of Charles Dickens’s great line about the “…best of times, the worst of times” because, for me, that’s what every beginning is. The task is daunting, but the possibilities are limitless. How can I pick one idea out of the jumble of stories in my head that are begging to be told? This time, it’s a bit easier than usual. There’s a book that I started a year or so ago, an idea that I really liked, but somehow the story got ahead of me. It took an unexpected turn and I didn’t know how to follow it. I put it aside, but all the time I was working on Lethal Journal, that story was percolating in another corner of my mind – and now I’m ready to write it. I think I have a solution to the problem that eluded me a year ago.
Ultimately, that’s what next. More writing. More hope. Plus, discipline, persistence, and (hopefully) inspiration.
My guest this week is JENNIFER SKUTELSKY. JENNIFER is an author, editor and writing coach. She’s written two books of nonfiction, BREATHING THROUGH BUTTONHOLES, the ghostwritten autobiography of a Jewish woman who survived Nazi-occupied Belgium, and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, a memoir exploring the aftermath of xenophobic violence that broke out in South Africa in 2008. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer lives with her daughter in San Francisco. She has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos.
The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction: The Novel vs The Memoir
At times there’s a struggle between these two mammoths. While there are similarities between the two, they are different, and the writer must carefully consider which will best serve the story s/he has to tell. This isn’t as clear-cut a choice as it might seem.
What the novel and the memoir share are distinct qualities of craft and storytelling, and oddly enough, the author’s concept of truth, however slanted, distorted, real or imaginary. World building lies at the heart of the novel and the memoir, together with all its associated facets: conflict, relationships, setting, and challenges that characters take on, succumb to or overcome.
As an editor and writer of both, I’ve encountered the limitations and demands of fiction and nonfiction, exploring the boundaries of perception and subjective nature of truth. Assuming to come to a conclusion is tricky because it seems so final and rigid, but my own deduction has yielded the belief that truth is more easily captured in fiction.
It took me a while to figure that out. Even creative nonfiction, which at first seemed like an oxymoron to me, is rooted in authentic experience, and who better to reveal, expose, share, and relate than someone who has lived the story they’re telling? The reader who plucks a memoir off the shelf assumes the story is true, the characters are real, and events a faithful reproduction of the past. Readers accept that they’re exploring a writer’s personal history and sensibilities.
In fiction, writers can eliminate ‘truth,’ toss it aside for fantastical landscapes, imaginary characters and outlandish events, taking the reader on an unlikely journey as far from real as it’s possible to get. The writer can in a sense play God, reinvent, innovate, offer something fresh and unpredictable to a reader who wants to get lost in a narrative with no or little bearing on immediate experience. But the novel can also take the reader deep into realities that reverberate with truth’s mercurial qualities.
Truth can be stranger than fiction; real life incidents can defy our notions of the world and humanity; and actual conflict can test the margins of credibility. Conversely, the skillful fiction writer can craft a story that draws the reader into a fabricated world no less authentic because it’s imagined.
In deciding whether to write a novel or memoir, one of the most important elements to consider, one that will probably tip the scales, is intention or motivation.
This is easier for the fiction writer to grapple with. You have a story to tell. That’s it. Lots going on in your head that belongs in a book.
It’s not nearly so simple for the writer who takes on a memoir. True, there’s a story to tell, but why tell it? Who cares?
Well, everyone of course, because we’re motivated by:
- Altruism. We want to expose unfairness, injustice, pain or abuse, and feel that others in a similar position will benefit from our revelations. Unwrap the sore, and begin the healing process. Here the memoir comes into its own. People relate to people, and seek to identify with each other through common suffering, ailments, emotional distress and various other life challenges. You want to punish someone, isolate her. You want to inspire or comfort her, convey that she’s not alone. The memoir can bridge tremendous gaps in knowledge, experience, emotional engagement and compassion.
- Spite. You’re a good writer, and a memoir provides the perfect platform to get even with errant siblings, parents, friends, bosses, exes, spouses. Um…no. Avoid a lawsuit and look to the novel for this kind of satisfaction. Fiction offers virtually limitless potential to exact wicked, literary revenge on anyone you choose, although this might be one instance where a pseudonym will come in handy.
- Catharsis. While hammering away at a laptop and giving voice to all our pent-up emotions can be cathartic, some secrets belong in a therapist’s office or a support group–safer forums than the mass, critical, somewhat anonymous publishing industry. Catharsis can be found off the published page, and we’re often too close to our personal injuries to withstand an assault or barrage of rejection. It’s a difficult line to draw, because the memoir’s essence lies in honesty and vulnerability. Here too, characterization in a novel offers a fertile base for rich emotional detail and observation. It also allows for redemption that may be elusive in real life. Maybe there’s something cathartic in that.
- Celebrity. You’re famous and have already made millions. Now you want to sell lots of books. People find you entertaining/smart/funny/interesting, and they’ll be drawn to your personal story because you’re gorgeous and talented and have your own reality show. If that’s it, then maybe wait a while before tackling the novel. The memoir is your baby.
- Connection. You have something to share, a fresh angle and insight to offer and feel a generous urge to reach out and connect with a readership. You may not change the world, but you’re valuable and want to leave a tangible legacy behind. Perhaps for your family and friends, or a broader circle who will find value in your story. Write a memoir. It could lead you to a novel.
Navigating the challenges of writing long form fiction or nonfiction can be exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. Our ancestors were storytellers, whether they chose to smear pigment on cave walls, carve symbols in wood, tell tales around a communal fire, or write. We have a natural inclination to create, and language is one of the best tools at our disposal to do so. If you have a story to tell, go ahead, choose your medium and tell it.
Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time to share your passion for storytelling with us.
A final word from me: I’ve read TIN CAN SCRAPNEL and recommend it without hesitation. It’s the true story of a woman who became involved when she didn’t have to. Reading it, I learned about a tragic situation that I didn’t even know existed and was reminded how many-faceted are the problems in our world.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to Jennifer’s website: http://www.jskutelsky.com
TIN CAN SHRAPNEL on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1qekvFr
When I first published Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, I bowed to the traditional publishing view that a novel should not be more than 70,000 to 80,000 words.
Although, in the process of editing a manuscript that became a typescript in time, I cut thousands of words and scenes from the original in much the same way as the film editor cuts celluloid from the movie. Some scenes were no longer relevant to the story as a whole. Some took the story in a vastly different direction. Some were melodramatic in the extreme. And some were simply too much of a good thing.
Since I had started the work at the end of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that some scenes were irrelevant. At the time, I was involved with domestic violence as a volunteer with a women’s refuge organization. These concerns became part of the book as well but were a radical tangent from the story I intended to tell.
This is all a part of the process of creation, what Michaelangelo called “freeing the statue from the marble.”
I had a lot of marble to work with! First of all, because I had not written anything at all in nearly fifteen years, there was a lot of pressure built up in the brain volcano. Second, I’m a free-flow writer, what some call ‘organic’ others call ‘pantser.’ As you’d expect, I prefer ‘organic’ under these circumstances.
Once again, I stopped writing. Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls (then untitled and a motley collection of various types of paper and notebooks) returned to the shelf for another ten years. But the desire to write this particular story remained. In the final six years before Salsa Dancing‘s first publication, I grasped the dream of writing and claimed it.
After Avalon Books acquired and published Wait a Lonely Lifetime, I felt free to pursue my writing on a professional basis. Like many of my colleagues, I had discovered the entrepreneur within. In years past, I had established several successful businesses and felt the same urge to do so as an author.
Therefore, bowing to convention, I split Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls into two books – a Dickensian method. Part I was published in January 2013 and Part II in March of the same year. After a while, I realized my mistake. Following a discussion with a number of my colleagues and taking their good advice, I withdrew the two volumes from the market and went to work to revise the novel to its original intended condition.
With a redesigned cover and months of careful attention to detail, Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, 2nd Edition, hit the cyber regions on March 23, 2014 and its paperback edition on March 30th. I still consider this my magnum opus because I touch on so many of the important truths of my own life and philosophy. Such a book is hard to categorize but Salsa has a happy ending.
Thank goodness. I’m glad that I can look forward to a happy ending to what sounds like a delightful read. Thanks so much for sharing your experience writing Salsa Dancing with us, Leigh. Good luck with all your books.
Here’s what one reviewer, identified on Amazon as a ‘Proud Tennessean” said about it:
“Loreen Thigpen certainly had no idea where life would take her, and how others’ lives would also be changed, when she chose to steal country music star Josh Montgomery’s tour bus, in order to make her way from a Texas prison to the little town of Red Boiling Springs, TN, in an attempt to see her dying mother. This novel is hard to put down, once you start reading it. It is exciting, sad and sometimes fun, all of the above. Good job, Marielena. Well written! I highly recommend “Loreen on the Lam: A Tennessee Mystery.”
|I hope you’ll forgive me for a bit (okay, a lot) of BSP today. I have a new baby and, like most new mothers, I can’t resist telling everyone I meet all about her. It’s a new Jennie Connors mystery. Here’s a little bit about her:||
Jennie has been promoted out of the job she loves. But there’s one thing she wants to do before she moves into her new position: Jake Appleton, known throughout Riverview as Sour Appleton, needs to be integrated into the retirement community’s social life. It won’t be easy.
Jake spends his days alone, staring out the window and mumbling that the world is full of crooks. Has he witnessed wrongdoing in the construction project going on outside his window? Or is he looking back over his own life. Jake’s not telling. He shares his thoughts only in his journal.
Jennie doesn’t give up – and, finally, one morning Jake surprises her. He taps the journal, says “it’s all in here” and agrees to talk to her later that afternoon.
But someone else gets there first. Jennie finds Jake with a bullet in his head. The journal is gone – and Jennie is determined to find it and solve the puzzle of a lonely old man and restore peace of mind to the residents she loves.
If you’ve read any of the other Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor books, you won’t be surprised to know that the residents insist on helping, especially the not-so-sweet tea ladies and Nate, an old actor who takes the world’s a stage seriously.
Populated with likeable, quirky characters, Lethal Journal is, by turns, funny, sweet and sad. Most of all, I hope it’s entertaining.
Here’s a link – http://amzn.to/1j7cXnW
If you’d like to know more about the Jennie Connors series, please click on the “About Sandra Carey Cody” page of this blog or check out the Jennie Connors page of my website – http://www.sandracareycody.com