Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Gin Mill Grill--A Sandi Webster Mystery

I'm hosting Marja McGraw on my blog this week. Marja has a new Sandi Webster mystery to tell us about. The floor is yours, Marja.

John, Thank you for having me as a guest today. I enjoy your posts and I’m delighted to be a part of your blog.

You might wonder how I came up with a storyline that involves speakeasies and gin mills. I was stuck for an idea and sat down with a large book filled with the front pages of newspapers. I can’t say the headlines grabbed my attention, but farther down the page you can find all kinds of stories.

We like to say that things were simpler in the old days, and that people were more innocent than we are now. That’s not necessarily true.

Through researching old newspapers I’ve found some sensational stories that involved things you’d think might happen today, but not back in the thirties or forties. People are people, and they do unexpected things for surprising reasons.

I’m getting off track. When I started reading some of the stories, the ones farther down the page, I ran across one regarding the murder of a man and the disappearance of his brother. Needless to say, the authorities thought of the disappearing brother as their prime suspect. To the best of their knowledge, he’d been in the house at the time of the murder and somehow managed to escape.

That’s all I needed. This brief story got the best of my imagination and the storyteller in me was off and running. I wanted an interesting time and location involved in the story and what might be better than a speakeasy during Prohibition? I needed a resolution to the disappearing brother, and I found one. I also needed someone who might even care about the brothers in current time, and I found just the woman. I also needed suspects, but considering the era it took a bit more work to come up with some characters who might still be living after so many years.

As the story unfolded, I wanted to include a really scary guy, and I came up with one I think might give you the shivers. His nickname was Water Boy and I think you’ll love letting him give you the chills.

Sandi Webster-Goldberg and her husband, Pete, have a reputation for solving cold cases and it didn’t take long for a woman to walk through their office door with an old case.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy occasionally having Sandi and Pete solve a cold case is because the victim is “off stage,” so to speak. They don’t have to face a recent murder and I don’t have to let gore sneak into my books. When the pair solve a current case, it’s a bit trickier.


Sandi and Pete have earned a reputation for solving old cases, and they’re approached by a woman who’d like a 1930s crime solved. A man was brutally murdered and his brother immediately disappeared. The authorities believed the brother was their best suspect, but they weren’t able to track him down.

Case closed – or was it?

With the discovery of a private room in the house where the crime was committed, Sandi and Pete must change their thought processes and start running down other suspects and looking at other locations, including an old speakeasy.

Why would someone in the current day try to put a halt to the investigation? After all, the murder took place in the 1930s.

Circumstances are often not as they seem, and this case is no exception.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Syl's Back

Nineteenth Century Coal Region Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman has been one of my most popular characters with readers.

Tilghman was introduced in Fallen From Grace. His adventures continued in Sooner Than Gold. And now I'm thrilled to report The Bartered Body, third in the series, has been released by Milford House, fiction imprint of Sunbury Press
The third of his family to serve as a lawman in the fictional Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, Sylvester has persevered in his duties and continued his quest to marry the ambitious and independent Lydia Longlow. Now, this time around, he faces one of his most difficult challenges as a law enforcement officer.
Here's the blurb:
Why would thieves steal the body of a dead woman?
That’s the most challenging question yet to be faced by Sylvester Tilghman, the third of his family to serve as sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, in the waning days of the 19th century.
And it’s not just any body but that of Mrs. Arbuckle, Nathan Zimmerman’s late mother-in-law. Zimmerman is burgess of Arahpot and Tilghman’s boss, which puts more than a little pressure on the sheriff to solve the crime in a hurry.
Syl’s investigation is complicated by the arrival in town of a former flame who threatens his relationship with his sweetheart Lydia Longlow; clashes with his old enemy, former burgess McLean Ruppenthal; a string of armed robberies, and a record snowstorm that shuts down train traffic, cuts off telegraph service and freezes cattle in the fields.
It will take all of Syl’s skills and the help of his deputy and friends to untangle the various threads and bring the criminals to justice.
The Bartered Body is available in print and electronic format from the publisher, https://www.sunburypressstore.com/The-Bartered-Body-9781620067567.htm as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.
If you're looking for a fun read and haven't yet met Syl and his friends I hope you'll add The Bartered Body to your TBR list.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On Attracting Readers

What makes a reader pick up a book?
For writers, this is always an intriguing question. I've been monitoring a survey on the subject, and it resulted in a few surprises.
With the millions of books published every day, writers have to resort to every element available in order to stand out and be discovered by readers. We're told we've got to become a 'brand' so those coveted readers will recognize us and seek out our work from among all those available. Branding means getting your name out in the marketplace. You've got to promote yourself as well as your books. This endless drive to promote can become overwhelming, distract from your real job (writing), and become downright annoying to potential customers if you don't do it right.
Many of the writers I know are obsessed with a desire to acquire reviews because they've been told this is the key to discovery. Amazon, for example, gives marketing assistance to books with 50 or more reviews. Some marketing programs won't accept a book unless it has a designated number of reviews.
Surprisingly, reviews were not specified as a particular attraction for readers responding to this survey.
What a majority did emphasize as elements inspiring them to pick up and buy a book were: An attention-grabbing title; an intriguing blurb, and an eye-catching cover.
Another big concern was price. They seemed to agree $2.99-3.99 for electronic and $15-20 for print were fair prices.
I was a bit surprised they put title first, since most often the advice from "experts" emphasizes cover art. Personally, I do think cover design is among the most important considerations. Yet, there is the admonition not to judge a book by its cover, and I am drawn to the mystery of titles. Think of all the great novels you would know by their titles rather than the covers adorning their pages.
In regard to blurbs, a majority said they should be just long enough to give a hint of what the story's about (but not give away everything), should not include reviews and definitely should not compare the book or writer to another.
A number of the persons responding to the survey said they also like to read a few pages of the book to test the quality of the writing before making a decision to buy. The "look inside" feature for electronic versions got a big thumbs up. Reflecting the trend to shorter attention spans, a number of the responders said they would select a shorter book over a longer one every time--provided it had the desired other attributes.
Getting back to the subject of reviews, some discounted them as merely one person's opinion while others said they have been put off by manipulation of the system and inaccurate or misleading comments.
True, this was not a huge survey. But I think it provides some interesting food for thought.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Recommended Reads

As the year winds down, I like to assess the books I've read and make some recommendations.
To date in 2017, I read (re-read in some cases) 61 books--a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Among acclaimed writers new to me with whom I got acquainted through several books were Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny. The month isn't quite up, so I may complete a few more reads.
Here then, in no particular order, are books I'm recommending to friends:
Fool's River by Timothy Hallinan. This is the eighth in his Poke Rafferty series. His obvious love for the Thai people shines on every page. Hallinan creates living, breathing characters and plots to keep one guessing and flipping pages. He depicts life in Thailand as one who is familiar with both the respectable tourist scene and the seediest districts of Bangkok. His characters are pragmatic people who have learned to live with corruption. There's violence, but also empathy, pithy dialogue and quirky humor.
Wanted: Dead by Wayne D. Dundee. Bounty hunter Bodie Kendrick is on the job again.
Only this time around (in the fifth book of the series), Bodie isn't intent on bringing bad guys to justice. Instead it's his job is to protect Tyrone Avery, a man fresh out of jail and with a $50,000 price on his head. If you have yet to read a Bodie Kendrick story, you owe it to yourself to grab one now. And this is as good a place to start as any. Trust me, you'll want to read the rest, too.
The Hemingway Files by H. K. Bush. It's a brilliant first novel with intriguing characters and situations, suspense and romance. If you love a book that will pull you in and continue to haunt you afterward, you'll want to read this novel.
Yellow Bird: A Webb Sawyer Mystery by Douglas Quinn. As always, Quinn has crafted a fast-moving, entertaining plot with colorful characters, a realistic North Carolina setting, a bit of humor and plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing. I think this is the fifth in his popular Sawyer series. Concern for an aging relative is Webb's route to troubling crime in this episode.
The Peacemaker by Andrew McBride. Up for an exciting western? Andrew McBride has crafted a gripping adventure tale with sympathetic characters and a secure sense of time and place. Well researched. Recommended to all who enjoy a good tale.
The Coroner's Daughter by Andrew Hughes. Another absorbing Victorian drama by the author of the brilliant The Convictions of John Delahunt. Hughes presents a canvas with likeable, realistic characters; a glimpse into early 19th century Dublin, a gripping plot that kept me turning pages and a satisfying conclusion.
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. A Kiplingesque mystery with an intriguing plot, lots of twists, sympathetic characters and convincing intrigue. This is the first in a series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham of Her Majesty's Imperial Police Force and his second, Sgt. Banerjee, commonly known as Surrender-Not. I've already read the second in the series, A Necessary Evil, and look forward to more of their adventures.
Trouble In Nuala by Harriet Steel. Set in the British Colonial period of the 1930s in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), this first in a new series introduces Inspector Shanti de Silva, recently transferred from busy Colombo to the sleepy hill-town of Nuala, and Jane, his English wife, a former governess. I found this a quick, entertaining read with a well-paced narrative, a pragmatic protagonist, an interesting variety of characters, a dash of humor and a balanced look at the political and cultural differences between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and their British overlords.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

No 'Peace On Earth' Until The End Of The Novel

(J. L. Greger, my guest today, is known for mysteries/thrillers with a scientific slant. Read on to see what she thinks makes for a good read.)

“Peace on Earth” is a frequent holiday blessing. However, readers don’t want “peace on earth” until the end of a novel. This is another way of saying that novels depend on tension.

In essence, the plot of a novel is a series of events during which a characters or characters resolve a problem or overcome adversity. A mystery at its simplest level is the discovery or a crime (usually a murder) and the determination of who did it and how.

Many authors accordingly believe their books need a victim, a protagonist, one villain, one investigator (sometimes the protagonist), and a few colorful sidekicks. They argue that books which include a number of additional characters are confusing. Perhaps these authors are correct. Their books are fast reads and often sell well.

But I think formualistic mysteries (or really any type of novel) are not satisfying for several reasons.
·         The end is too predictable. I like mysteries in which I’m not sure of the finale until the end. I also don’t like books with only one clear-cut villain. The “red herrings” need to be well developed and plausible.

·         The formualistic stories are not realistic. Life isn’t that straight-forward. We all face continual distractions. Although we respect the beauty of linear thinking, most of us make numerous missteps daily because of misleading or ultimately unrelated information.

·         Most problems aren’t solved by a single person in virtual isolation. Detectives work in teams and consult with crime labs, lawyers, and experts in various fields.

In other words, confusion is a part of most of our lives and should be part of novels. That’s one reason for subplots in novels.

I think the best books can be read at several levels. Teachers in high school and college literature classes drilled most of us on symbolism in novels, especially Moby Dick. Although many of those discussions seemed overblown, I think at least one character in a novel should have inner emotional turmoil. The swirls of confusion (self-doubt, anger, or regret) which swirls about this character at the start of the story should crescendo during the tale but be calmed by the end of the story. However, logical character development makes it unlikely the psychological profile of a character will change totally and the character’s issues will dissipate totally.

Finally, although we all wish each other “peace on earth,” most of us don’t want it in our novels until the last page. Some of us even like one unsettling note at the end of a tale to make us think. Think about that the next time you wish someone “peace on earth.”

You can win a free copy of my latest mystery—She Didn’t Know Her Place. GoodReads is doing a free giveaway of three signed copies. Enter before December 23 
at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36679089-she-didn-t-know-her-place
Blurb: In She Didn’t Know Her Place, Dana Richardson faces a dilemma in her new job. The Natural Resource Center, which reports to her, is alleged to be "doctoring" data to help industrial clients meet federal pollution standards. Her boss Guy Beloit, the president of State U, doesn’t care. Really no one, but Dana, cares. That's not true. Sally Stein cared and she died under mysterious circumstances.

The paperback and Kindle versions are available at: http://www.amzn.com/1979733112.

Bio: J. L. Greger is a former professor in the biological sciences and research administrator. She likes to include tidbits of science in her thriller/mystery novels: Riddled with Clues (finalist for a 2017 NM/Arizona book award) and Murder…A New Way to Lose Weight (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers Association [PSWA] contest). Her collections of short stories focus on families: The Good Old Days? and Other People’s Mothers (finalist for a 2017 NM/Arizona Book Award). To learn more, see her website: http://www.jlgreger.com

Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing What You Don't Know

Beginning writers are often advised to write what they know.
Personally, I've always considered that rather limiting advice. Granted all of us have experiences which we might utilize in our writing. But is your experience broad enough to justify a novel? And should a good novel be autobiographical?
A good writer should have curiosity and imagination, two traits which go beyond mere experience. Not that I'm opposed to experience. I believe experience to be a great teacher--if you're willing to learn from it.
But I prefer to believe a writer should write what he wants to know.
As E. L. Doctorow put it, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."
This desire to learn has the power to stimulate your imagination and take you places you've never experienced before, a voyage which can transform your writing and give it a power it might otherwise lack. Your enthusiasm for the subject should shine through and transfer to the potential reader what you've learned about a subject.
For me, research is half the fun of writing and provides opportunity to delve into many fascinating topics. But we need to beware of lecturing to our readers. What you've learned about a particular subject must conform to the story you're telling and contribute to the advancement of the plot. It may please you to elaborate on a particular theme and this is where you need to exercise care lest you stall your story and leave your readers exasperated.
Read Hemingway's story Big Two-Hearted River. One of the things I initially liked about the story when I read it as a boy was all it had to say about the pleasures of fishing. The story isn't about fishing. But there's a lot of fishing in it, which gave me pleasure and also taught me a few things both about fishing and writing.
A powder mill is an essential element in my first novel, Schlussel's Woman, and I read extensively on the process to understand how powder is manufactured. But, in the novel, millworker Isaac Inch's explanation of the process to the artist Titus Kuhns is kept to less than half a dozen paragraphs spread over several pages. My intent was to provide the reader with just enough to understand its importance to the plot.

As with description, a writer  should introduce what's been learned in gradual, digestible supplements to his prose. It's the old premise of show, not tell (though there are instances where tell is appropriate).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

History For The Curious

It has been some time since I wrote a blog. So, to get back in the groove, I thought I'd recommend some books (in no particular order) for those curious about history.
1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
If there are lessons to be learned from the past, some of those discussed in this book have been forgotten or, conveniently, swept under the proverbial rug. As its title suggests, this is a glimpse at new revelations about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. It offers devastating new evidence to destroy the myth the first inhabitants were ignorant savages who could only benefit from the civilizing influence of their conquerors.
Humankind by Alexander H. Harcourt.
A fascinating examination of how we (humans) became who/what we are.
Harcourt, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, traces the journey of the human species out of Africa and describes the biological and geographical forces which have shaped the beast into what it is today in all its glorious variety.
In the process he never shirks from noting differences of opinion or separating theory from established fact. His explanations of how environment, biology and even culture have shaped the differences between members of the same species across the world are lucid and backed by the latest scientific thought. Evolution is an ongoing process and more changes lie ahead.
Millennium by Ian Mortimer.
Despite resulting hardships, man has seldom chosen to benefit from the lessons of history.Those harsh lessons have failed to sway us from a tenacious belief technological advances will save us from the problems of the past.
British historian Ian Mortimer assesses what he considers the most important changes in Western civilization in the last thousand years, predicts a dystopian future if we don't end our reliance on fossil fuels but hints at a more optimistic stance pending some hard changes in our lifestyle. His conclusions on what changes and which historic characters had the most influence in each century from the eleventh to the twentieth may surprise, even shock, the reader, but he does so in an erudite, entertaining and convincing style.
A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston.
A remarkable man died sometime in 1715 in London and was buried in an unmarked grave.
This would be of little note were it not for the fact he was one of the greatest explorers of all time, a pioneering navigator, a naturalist, hydrographer, travel writer and--probably to his disadvantage--a pirate. His maps were used by James Cook and Horatio Nelson, among others; his work as a naturalist influenced von Humboldt and Darwin, and his writings stirred the imagination of Defoe, Coleridge and Swift. William Dampier circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore Australia.
The World of Washington Irving by Van Wyck Brooks.
This is my favorite of the series of books Brooks wrote on the literary history of the United States.
Irving, one of my early favorites, was the first American writer to live by his pen. This book by Brooks focuses on the world in which he lived and introduces some fascinating Pennsylvanians, including Charles Brockden Brown, the first true American novelist; Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Charles Wilson Peale, Alexander Wilson and others.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
Most recognize the Wright brothers as aviation pioneers, but know little about them on a personal level.
Fact is, on a personal level, Wilbur and Orville were generally reclusive, work-obsessed, idea-driven and with apparently little time or interest in people outside their closely-knit family and a carefully chosen group of friends with similar interests. In a word, they were nerds--who would have struck a majority of their fellow creatures as odd in any time period.
Defining The World by Henry Hitchings.
When Americans say "dictionary" they usually mean Webster. In the UK, the Oxford English Dictionary would more likely come to mind.
A few might realize that for more than a century the term meant Johnson to our ancestors.
For most, dictionary is like the 10 Commandments--writ in stone, accepted without question and its origin rarely considered. It may be hard for many to realize there was no such authoritative reference before Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published on April 15, 1755. It took Johnson eight years (five more than he'd anticipated) to complete the work.
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Historic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester.
Winchester set out to write a book explaining all there is to know about the Atlantic, which he considers to be our most important ocean. An overwhelming task and one might doubt it's even possible. He may not have succeeded in his initial goal but he comes as close as anyone in writing a biography of our ocean.

He explains how the ocean was born, how people living on its shores reacted to it and how, most importantly, it has influenced the development of the civilized world. To do this, he tells tales of man's first attempts to go out on the water, pirates, naval battles, the development of sea-going commerce and other topics. He also includes numerous anecdotes from his personal experience with the ocean.