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And the Winner is …

August 1, 2014




Judy Alter was the name I pulled from my imaginary hat filled with the names of those of you who were kind enough to leave a comment this past week. A million thanks to all of you. I know that time is a precious gift and I do appreciate your using some of yours to read this blog and leave a comment.

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Judy, I’ll get in touch with you privately so you can let me know where to send a copy of LOVE AND NOT DESTROY.


Exploring an Unexpected Path

July 24, 2014

?????????????There are few things more exciting – or unsettling – to a writer than admitting you’re not in control of your story. Most of us like to think we’re in control of our lives, but, deep down, we know that’s only partly true. In reality, our lives are subject to a million and one curves the universe can throw at us. As writers, though, we’re dealing with a universe of our own creation, so we should be in control. Right? You’d think so. But, as in other aspects of our lives, it’s not always the case. Sometimes a character or even the story itself throws us a curve.

I wrote LOVE AND NOT DESTROY as a stand-alone – or so I thought. It’s the story of Peace Morrow, a young woman who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by a strong, loving woman who gave her a nearly perfect childhood, but still, Peace can’t help wondering about her biological parents.

Thinking back over it, I remember that my original intent was that she would never discover who her biological parents were. The idea was that she would come to realize that it doesn’t matter whose blood flowed in her veins. She is what she makes herself.  Somewhere along the line, I realized that it was unfair to the reader and to my protagonist to leave that part of the puzzle unresolved and, truth be told, I wanted to know myself. So, by the end of the book, Peace has learned that her father is dead and her mother is someone she doesn’t really even like. That’s a complete turnaround from my original intention. The story took over and told me what needed to happen. I thought I’d tied up enough loose ends that the story was finished.

But Peace’s situation haunted me. I had to know what happened next and, unless I wrote the story, I’d never know. So, there you have it – I’m writing another Peace Morrow book. I planned to write about Peace’s relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers, and, almost as important, the relationship between the two mothers. It seemed like an interesting premise for a book. I had what I thought was the perfect title: ALL THAT I AM. I felt confident that I could make an interesting book out of this situation. I wrote a couple of chapters, introducing new characters as necessary to flesh out the story and, since I write mysteries, I inserted a mystery element into the book  … and, wham, the story took over. I realized the new characters’ lives were impacted in ways that could not be ignored. Peace and her two mothers are still there, but the focus has changed.

That’s where I am now. I’m being led down an unexpected path by characters who I thought I’d created, but who have assumed lives of their own. That’s what characters do; they demand that their story be told and even reveal to those of us who consider ourselves their creators what that story is. All we have to do is find the right words to do justice to the lives of these people.

Writing is an unpredictable endeavor – sometimes unsettling, always exciting.


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Leave a comment by August 1 and you could win a copy of LOVE AND NOT DESTROY.

Putting Your Ego Aside

July 5, 2014

It's Raining MenHave you ever collaborated with another author to tell a story? I haven’t actually done it, but the process fascinates me. A friend of mine, Beate Boeker, recently teamed up with another writer, Gwen Ellery to write It’s Raining Men. 

Since I’ve known Beate for a while and have read quite a few of her books, I thought I’d be able to tell which chapters she wrote. I was wrong. It’s Raining Men has all the trademark humor and mischief I’ve come to associate with Beate, but since I’m not familiar with Gwen’s other work, I can’t say how much her input affected the style. The two of them did a good job creating one voice. I had fun trying to figure who wrote which chapter, but there was only one chapter I was sure had been written by my friend and that was because of the setting, not the voice.

As I said, the collaborative process fascinates me. I think of writing as a deeply personal experience and can only imagine the patience and discipline it must take to shape the visions of two individual writers into one cohesive story. The closest I’ve ever come was several years ago when a group of then-Avalon writers decided to write a joint novel for our Avalon Authors blog. Since Avalon Books no longer exists, the blog has moved on (we’re now Classic and Cozy Books) , but the old blog and our collaborative book, Along For the Ride, are still floating out there in cyber space. Here’s a link if you’re curious:

If you’d like to sample It’s Raining Men, there’s an excerpt on my website –

I can think of two other writing  teams whose work I enjoy. One is the mother and son team who write the Bess Crawford series and the Inspector Ian Rutledge series as Charles Todd. The other is the sister team, Loretta Jackson and Vickie Britton, who write the High Mountain Mystery series. I wonder if being related makes it easier or harder to put aside one’s ego. That, I think, must be the key - being able to put ego aside for the good of the story.

Link to It’s Raining Men:

Any other collaborators out there? I’d love to hear from you.


Celebrating Independence – reprise

July 1, 2014

I wrote this two years ago, but it still expresses what I feel about the holiday we’re celebrating later this week, so I’m going to break the rule which states that all posts should be fresh and original and repost it. I hope you’ll forgive me and share some of your own thoughts and feelings – not just about Independence Day, but about the concept of independence.

After basics like food and shelter, I can’t think of anything more precious or more essential to the human spirit than independence. And there’s probably nothing more taken for granted by those who posses it. That’s too bad, a grievous sin. It’s also probably true that we here in the United States are more guilty of this sin than most. However, once a year we at least try to redeem ourselves; we set aside a day to remember our heritage and to celebrate it. That day is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document that condenses into six paragraphs the ideals on which our nation was founded.

It’s getting close to lunchtime as I write this and I have to admit I’m having trouble with it. Every sentence I write seems trite and inadequate or overly gushy and sentimental, unworthy of the holiday we’re celebrating. I go back, edit and delete until there’s nothing left. This morning’s paper has a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed in it. Many of us memorized those words sometime during our school years and promptly forgot most of them. But some phrases are so powerful and so evocative of what we as a nation hope to be, that they remain locked in the recesses of our brains–phrases like: “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” “self-evident that all men are created equal” and, of course: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is it any wonder that I’m having a problem? How can I write anything good enough to honor the tradition of Thomas Jefferson? I’m tempted to blame the times in which we live for my problem. The country is so divided that the crack in our Liberty Bell seems ominously appropriate. I believe that differences in opinion are good and even necessary to create a society that embodies the ideals of that brilliant Declaration. If only we could remember the phrase “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and listen to all opinions, even those with which we disagree. Not just listen, but actually consider that there might be some truth in a viewpoint different from our own. After all, if all men are created equal, shouldn’t all men (and women and children) be allowed to express their opinion? But perhaps not quite so vociferously. A little civility goes a long way.

The times seem bleak indeed, but history reminds me that this is not new. There has always been conflict among men, especially during periods of change. I understand that even the men we so lovingly call our Founding Fathers lost their tempers and shouted at each other from time to time. The story goes that George Washington wondered if he was witnessing a rising or a setting sun. So, maybe it’s not as bad as it seems.

Go forth and celebrate your Life and Liberty. Pursue Happiness.

Meet Robin Rivera

June 22, 2014

Robin Rivera has mastered the art of keeping a lot of balls in the air. She is a founding member and one-sixthwoman juggling of the blog team of She holds degrees in history and has worked as a consultant, a museum curator, an archeologist and an educator. She knows way too much about WWII submarines and old Land Rovers. You can find her every Wednesday posting to her blog and on Twitter @robinrwrites. Here’s what she has to say about the birthing of a novel:

It occurred to me that before the labor and delivery of the novel, writers engage in a long wondrous courtship, the one where we embrace becoming passionate readers. We start this intimate process young, in my case as a child. I was lucky; I grew up the youngest in a large family of readers. My mother’s bedside table teetered under the weight of her nighttime reading material, mostly Michener. My eldest sister converted her walk-in closet into a library. My other sister perfected the repeated read, cracking the spines on her favorites until they practically turned to dust. If there was a spare minute in the day you’d find us scattered, one tucked into a crook of the backyard walnut tree (my personal favorite), one flat-backed on the sofa, one curled in an armchair. I could go on, but the point is they surrounded me with reading options. I didn’t need to go to the library or a bookstore to meet new writers. I could move from room to room sampling writing styles and genres, and I did, often flicking the pages of books my parents deemed inappropriate for my age. I was experimenting and searching for my literary soul mates.

The summer I turned ten, my brother brought home four or five brown paper bags bulging with novels. Classic crime spilled out of the GIRL READINGbags, lurid pulp covers painting a colorful mosaic on the floor. We all prowled through this wondrous horde, laying claim to our favorites, and guarding them from our sibling’s thievery. That summer I started the most inappropriate of all my underage affairs, the one with Chandler, Fleming and Hammitt. Soon the Grand Dames joined the party, Christie, Tey and Sayers. I speed-dated my way through the genre’s best for the next ten years of my life. I lingered over the heroes who reluctantly rose to challenges, or who stumbled through life on good intentions, but poor execution. I worshiped the writers who tricked me with red herrings, teased me with cleaver clues, and threw me into tailspins with sudden reversals. But I fell in love with the authors who gave me endings I never saw coming.

Growing up on a steady diet of crime novels isn’t for everyone, but I’m convinced this long courtship, gifted me with some valuable life skills. For one thing, it turned me into a critical thinker, someone who scrutinizes and prods the facts. I’m never satisfied until all the information shards fit together in a logical pattern. I used this skill every day of my adult life as a professional historian. I tickled and teased facts into place, hoping to entice people into learning about history though my museum exhibits and magazine articles.

However, I didn’t realize the full impact of my old sweethearts on my writing style until I shifted my hand to fiction. It turns out I’m a writer obsessed with creating rough, defective characters. Classic crime taught me not to expect perfection; even the good guys embrace some sin. They drink, smoke and wallow in a host of mental conditions ranging from depression to chronic guilt. Their faults didn’t make them less heroic in my eyes, it just made them human. My old flames showed me why motive matters, and if you hide a few admirable qualities in your villains, you make readers ponder the human condition long after the book is closed. Now I embrace their example, and I marry it to my own work. Because of their influence, my fictional baby is about an art thief protagonist, with a philanthropist as the antagonist. I know I’d never be satisfied writing about beautiful happy people, because my first paramours were not fairy tales. I never wanted to read about unicorns and princesses. Well, maybe if the unicorn was a ruthless killer, and the princess was a tough-as-nails bounty hunter. Now that’s a mash-up I could get behind.

As I take a moment to reflect on the fussy infant I currently edit into the light of the world, I am grateful for all my book obsessions. I learned something valuable from each literary affair, maybe in ways I didn’t expect or understand at the time. Before I settled down to write a word, they helped me to arrive at this point in my life. Best of all, they fostered my deep affection for all writers. I respect and admire my siblings in ink, and I can think of no greater company to aspire to than the family of authors.

Thanks, Robin, for this glimpse into your writing life. Good luck with all your many projects.

Meet Karen McCullough

June 16, 2014

Karen_McCullough_2013Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which range across the mystery, paranormal, fantasy and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy, and she’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards and a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

I was delighted when Karen agreed to tell us a little about  herself and her books. So, grab a cup of tea (or whatever your beverage of choice may be) and settle in to meet a nice person who also happens to be a fine writer.

When did you first know you were going to write professionally?

I was actually writing professionally quite a while before I sold my first story. I kind of slid sideways into writing fiction. I was a programmer by trade for fifteen years, but I burned out on it. (You know you’re burned out when you start dreaming lines of COBOL code.) I moved into writing software documentation, and then into writing software reviews and articles about computers, software etc. for a couple of computer magazines and then into more general interest pieces. Finally one day my husband suggested I write down some of those fantastical stories I had rolling around in my head. The rest is history – and a lot of hard work, rejections, tears, persistence, and finally a bit of success.

Anyone who’s been writing for a while will understand about the hard work and appreciate the value persistence. I doubt, though, that many of us have dreamed of lines of COBOL code.

What part of writing do you find most satisfying?

The two most satisfying words I ever write are: “The End.”

What part do you find most difficult?

It seems like there’s always a point in a novel, usually around 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through, where I start to feel like the whole thing is useless, pointless, hopelessly ridiculous drivel that no one would ever want to read. I have to fight my way through that feeling, continuing to write just on the faith that at least if it isn’t perfect, I’ll be able to fix it. On the other hand, the most difficult part might be all the promoting you have to do once the book is out…

Amen to that! What comes first for you? Characters? Story? Setting?

They come to me all at once as a package deal. My books are generally born when one idea rubs up against another and creates sparks. The very first time I attended a trade show, when I was an associate editor at a trade publication, I realized it would make a great setting for a mystery story, or even a series of them. It had all the right ingredients: limited time and space; a cast of characters who knew each other, and were friends, rival, enemies, and sometimes lovers; and very high stakes. At the same time the character of Heather McNeill, assistant to the director, was born. She was based very loosely on a staff member I met at a site that hosts many trade shows. The woman was a great listener and had that gift of being someone people confided in all the time. Couple that with considerable curiosity and intelligence and I realized it would make her a good person to be the staff troubleshooter, which would lead to being the one who had an inside track to solving the mysteries as well.

I love the idea of two ideas rubbing together and creating sparks. Where do you find inspiration?

Everywhere. Everything I read, hear, see, experience and seek out goes into the giant mixer in my brain that churns ideas around and spits them back out as a story.

So … your writing brain never sleeps. Do you do a lot of research?

 Quite a bit. It depends on what I need to know, but I want to try to get everything as accurate as possible. When I write mysteries, in particular, I want to get my law enforcement facts straight. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to police officers and I did a Citizens’ Police Academy a few years ago. I frequent blogs of law enforcement officers, especially Lee Lofland’s very helpful Graveyard Shift blog ( as well as reading books and attending seminars on law enforcement techniques. For my trade show settings, I’m mostly drawing on my own experiences at various shows, but I’ve also tried to talk to some people managing them. I’ve generally had to simplify how things work in show management, since to get it right would make the cast too big and the procedures far too complicated for a good story.

Tell us about A GIFT FOR MURDERAGFM_200

The Blurb for A GIFT FOR MURDER:
For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington, D.C. Commerce & Market Show Center. But the Gifts and Home Decorations trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is being worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t. The discovery tips throws Heather’s life—personal and professional—into havoc.
The police suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gottenglimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive. Questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers, but if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit will remain free to kill again.

Her only help comes from an exhibitor with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends. To solve the mystery, she will havehas to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.

Sounds great. What other projects are in the works?

I’m working on the sequel to A GIFT FOR MURDER right now. It’s tentatively titled WIRED FOR MURDER and it’s close to finished. I will also have a romantic suspense novel titled, THE DETECTIVE’S DILEMMA, which will be released by Kensington’s Lyrical Press imprint in ebook and print on November 3. Here’s the quick blurb for it:
Her fingerprints are on the gun, but Sarah swears she’s innocent.
Although Sarah Anne Martin admits to pulling the trigger, she swears someone forced her to kill her lover. Homicide detective Jay Christianson is skeptical, but enough ambiguous evidence exists to make her story plausible. If he gives her enough freedom, she’ll either incriminate herself or draw out the real killers. But, having been burned before, Jay doesn’t trust his own protective instincts…and his growing attraction to Sarah only complicates matters.
With desire burning between them, their relationship could ultimately be doomed since Sarah will be arrested for murder if Jay can’t find the real killer.

NOTE: Karen has already agreed to come back in November and tell us about THE DETECTIVE’S DILEMMA.

Do you have a schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in when you can?

I tend to be a “binge writer.” I don’t write every day because my day job and family obligations often get in the way of it, and I’m not the kind of writer who can work in a few paragraphs here and there. I need to be able to sink into my world and get into the right groove before I can write, so I try to grab blocks of time when I can.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

You mean other than time spent at the day job, I presume? I spend time with family and friends, work in the garden, watch sports on TV, crochet, and sometimes mess around with computer games.

Pantster or plotter?

Pantser, mostly. I generally start a story with a pretty good idea how the first couple of chapters will go and a basic idea of how it ends. Everything else in the middle is pretty hazy, though it clears up as I push my way through the story. If I get really stuck, I take a notepad and pen and start writing down lists of things that could happen, bits of dialogue, whatever strikes me about the story. A day or two of that and I’m usually ready to start writing again.

What refreshes you creatively?

Travel probably most of all. Time spent in the garden is usually good for my creativity as well.

You’re obviously a very busy person. Thanks for taking time to visit with us. Good luck with A GIFT FOR MURDER.

Birth of a Novel readers, if you’d like to learn more about Karen, you can visit one of these sites:

Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog


Who Are Your People?

June 2, 2014

I’m especially pleased to have Linda Wisniewski as a guest this week. I’ve known Linda and admired her writing for a few years and a year or so ago we became critique partners. 

Writing about ethnicity

by Linda C. Wisniewski

When I was a child, the image of America as a “melting pot” appealed to me. Everyone would be welcome and blend in with the rest of society. As an adult, I saw the risk of losing some of our most beautiful stories when we assimilate into one homogeneous whole. Today I like to think of America as a “mosaic” where everyone is beautiful in her or his own way. Many readers agree. Memoirs about culture and ethnicity often make the best sellers list. Stories like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Carlos Eires’ Waiting for Snow in Havana invite us into the strange (to us) worlds that shaped their identities.
So how can you use your own heritage to tell your story? In my memoir workshops, I like to read a poem by New Jersey poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan called Black Dresses in which she recalls the many sensory details that describe her girlhood in an Italian neighborhood. The grape arbor, the women all in black, the soup, the front stoop, it’s all there, taking the reader back to that time and place. You can do that too. Make a list of all the images that come to mind when you think of your heritage. What were the smells in your grandmother’s kitchen? How did she dress? What holidays did you celebrate? Were there special dances, songs, costumes for big occasions? This list can be your treasure trove of writing prompts. Which items evoke the strongest emotions in you? Start there and write how you came to know about them. Where were you, at what age, and who was with you? How do you feel about them now?
In my memoir, Off Kilter, I wrote that “Living in America in the twenty-first century with all its diversity, I flip around like a kite on a string. I sample other cultures and new traditions. To live here without doing so is to refuse the food at a banquet. But what calls me most is my own family’s culture, lost somewhere between a farm in Poland and an old house in upstate New York.”
At a writing workshop in Saratoga Springs, NY, I discovered the poetry of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. Less than thirty miles away, the women in my family had lost their voices, embarrassed by their heritage. Much of Off Kilter deals with my coming to terms with the Polish joke, the struggle for national autonomy in Eastern Europe, and the rich legacy of music and literature that might have been lost when my people came to America wanting to belong. Writing about both the positive and negative aspects helped me learn to accept them all.
The next step took me to the country home of my cousin for a family reunion just outside Amsterdam, New York, the town where our ancestors settled. One person brought copies of my father’s family tree. Something quickened inside me as I stared at the name and dates of the farthest ancestor. Regina was born in 1778. What if I could meet her? What would she say? What was she like? On the long drive home to Pennsylvania, I imagined a conversation with her. What would she think of my life today?
Back home, I did some research into Polish culture but found very little about her. There was plenty of history about the years when she lived, the battles, the noblemen and women, the writers and artists and composers, but precious little about the common person, especially the women. Her family was not the szlachta, or nobles. My innate sense of justice rose. I would speak for her. I would use what I knew about my heritage, and turn to my intuition and imagination for the rest.
Where the Stork Flies took six years to write. I knew that I (and Regina!) had something to say, and after many revisions, wove our message into a modern fable about two very different women. One lives in the present day and has so many choices she can’t stick with any. The other lives in 19th century Poland and believes she has no choice but to follow the same path as her mother before her.
Now I am excited for the next step: placing Where the Stork Flies into the rich mosaic of American literature by writers whose roots are on a distant shore.

Linda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest in Bucks County, PA, with her retired scientist husband. She has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Rose and Thorn, Mindprints, gravel, Hippocampus and other literary journals both in print and online. Linda teaches memoir workshops for adults in the Philadelphia area. Her memoir, Off Kilter: A woman’s journey to OffKilterbookcoverpeace with scoliosis, her mother and her Polish heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. She is seeking representation for Where the Stork Flies.

Here’s a link to Off Kilter on Amazon:


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