Readers Want to Know

cat in glasses lying on sofa with bookOne of the things I like most about writing is hearing from readers. Quite often they say nice things, which is very pleasant. Sometimes they point out errors–a missing word or a typo–which is less pleasant, but still welcome, because I want the books to be as smooth to read as possible. Occasionally they ask questions about the characters and settings in the stories.

Recently a reader asked how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout in German “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s a bit larger, for another, there’s a lot more homicide happening. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers also ask if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of books: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own life try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email about just that. The woman who wrote said she’d enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly added that she was a little dismayed because she and the murderer shared a first name.

My email conversation with her gave me the idea of offering readers a chance to be a minor character in the next book in the series. I’m finding it quite fun to weave the winners into the story, and from the response so far, it’s also fun for them to meet “themselves” in a fictional setting.

The contest is only open to members of the Leah Nash Mysteries mailing list. I’ll be inviting entries in late February. Shortly thereafter, two names will be randomly selected to become part of Leah’s story.  If you’d like a chance to be a part of the next Leah Nash mystery, but you’re not a member of the mailing list, you can sign up for the list here.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that first ran in 2016.  

Christmas Boxes

I’m looking forward to Christmas day. We’ll have a loud, laugh-filled gathering of relatives of varying ages at our house. The little kids, having already experienced the thrill of Santa’s largesse at their own homes, will dive excitedly into yet more gifts from indulgent extended family members at ours. And there are few things more fun to watch than an excited, gleeful, and unabashedly materialistic child tearing through the Christmas wrapping to get to the good stuff.

But amid the raucous hubbub, I know that my thoughts will drift away to other Christmases where the presents were less plentiful, but the enthusiasm ran just as high. 

Unlike the fortunate offspring in the youngest branches of our family tree today, Christmas gifts for us weren’t the icing on the cake of a well-provided for childhood. They were our once-a-year chance at getting something we really, really, wanted—a pair of ice skates, a doll, a walkie talkie, a paint set, a baseball glove, a robot dinosaur. Those singular “major” gifts were made possible through careful planning and judicious use of a store layaway plan.

The other presents in our small stacks–curated to ensure none of us perceived that one of us had received more than another–were things we really, really needed—typically underwear, socks, pajamas or slippers, all items prone to wearing out before they made it very far on the hand-me-down train. But even those were prized for their no-previous-owner provenance.

Christmas stockings were not an add-on or an after thought for us, as they were for some of our friends. They were part of the main event because our economically challenged but imaginative mother made them so. We each had a handmade stocking adorned with our names in glitter or sequins. Each one was filled with candy, nuts and oranges, but the real fun was in the small “prizes” Mom had hunted down to include.

Our eager fingers dug deep to pull out packs of playing cards, rubber balls, handheld number-slide puzzles, barrettes and ribbons, magnifying glasses, tiny notebooks and new pencils, little plastic snow globes. Anything that caught her fancy that she thought we might have fun with. We pulled each one out, examined it, sometimes stopped to play with it, sometimes held it aloft to show and then negotiate a trade. 

Our father enjoyed the show, but it was our mother who directed Christmas morning, and stretched a very small budget into a very big production. We all knew that there were kids who got less than we did, but it took a very long time for us to realize that there were those who got more. And looking back I realize that they really didn’t.  

My own children received a much larger and more expensive range of presents that I ever received. It was great fun to watch them shout with happiness when they received not just one, but many things on their wish lists. But I doubt any longed-for gift ever gave them the jolt of joy that shot through me when I opened my favorite childhood Christmas gift.

It wasn’t very promising to look at–a large, battered, cardboard box, not even wrapped. But I can still recall the thrill I felt when I opened the flaps and saw the treasure trove inside. A boxful of books!

I loved the local library, but I longed for books I didn’t have to give back. I had three or four of my own, but I wanted more. A big collection it would take weeks to read through, and to which I could return again and again. The Christmas  I was ten years old, my mother found a way to get me my wish. She rescued dozens of old children’s books from a woman who thought no one else would want them. Mom knew she was wrong. The bindings were worn, some pages were brittle and yellowed, and the assortment had a definite musty smell, but I hadn’t yet read any of them. And they were mine to keep.

I received other gifts from my parents over the years that were more “valuable,” but I don’t remember many of them. I’ve never forgotten that box of used books. I hope, you, too, have a special gift from childhood that still evokes happy memories.

Merry Christmas. 

How Many Shades of Gray?

We’re doing a bit of painting at our house and I have had a revelation. I am not color blind, but I am color obtuse. One of my brothers is a professional painter. One of my sisters is a high priestess of home decorating. I said I wanted gray for the living room. I pointed at a color in the paint sample fan deck that my sister provided. (No need to go to the paint store and pick up color cards, she has her own fan deck always at the ready). I thought that pretty much settled things. I soon learned that was not the case.

Though she worded her question politely, it was clear from the surprise in my sister’s voice that my choice was not quite on point.

“Well, that one has quite a bit of green in it. I’ll hold it next to the couch. See? Do you think that’s the color you want?”

“Umm, no?”

In truth, I couldn’t really see the green undertones in that choice, or the blue undertones in the other one, or the purple in another. Holding the sample up to the couch, or the fireplace, or the wall did not help me any either. Something that my sister and my brother could see so clearly was simply not apparent to me. They both patiently tried to educate me on the many shades of gray, but clearly were at a loss when my willingness to learn could not overcome the near complete lack of color sense with which I was born. After several more stabs at picking the color, and responses that gently indicated I was still missing the mark, I randomly hit on one that I liked which passed muster with regard to any ill-advised undertones.

The living room is painted now and looks quite nice. However, the process of picking out the right shade of gray started me thinking about how often we simply cannot see what is so clear to others. It’s not just color palettes to which we respond with the limitations of our particular perceptions.

I am prone to quick judgments and practical answers. Less inclined to nuance and philosophical rumination. “If a tree falls in the forest with no ears to hear does it make a sound?” Yes. Next question. But for some people that is an engrossing metaphysical query, one which they respond to with thoughtful consideration. I’m aware, but often need reminding, that there are different ways of looking at the world, shaped by our ability to perceive the layers that lie beneath the surface of a person, or a situation, or a set of facts.

Thanks to my siblings’ ability to see things that I cannot, I now have a color on the walls that—as they predicted—makes the white woodwork “pop” and picks up subtle hues in the fireplace tile. And I have a reminder that in life and in decorating, what lies beneath is as important as what’s on the surface—even if I can’t see it without help. Still, though, the question remains.  How can there possibly be so many shades of gray paint?

Close Encounters of the Grocery Kind

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

As a work-at-home writer blessed with an extra-supportive spouse, I live a relatively sheltered life far from the crowded aisles and winding check-out lines of the local supermarket. Because grocery shopping is one of my least favorite things, Gary usually handles that task. It’s not only because he likes to be helpful, which he does, but also because he thrives on contact with as many people as possible during the day. I do not.

I confine my grocery shopping ventures to those occasions when he is not available or is not feeling well. Which was the situation on a recent Sunday morning.  It was quite early, and I thought that I’d be able to slip in and out quickly to get the few things on my list. That was not to be.

I found the fruits and vegetables I needed, I picked up several things that I did not need, and I got in some daily steps trekking back and forth between the two ends of the store which each held something I was in search of. I crossed everything off my list and headed to the checkout lanes.

You might think that as a card-carrying introvert, I would prefer the self-checkout choice. On one level you would be right. I do like being able to glide quietly through the purchasing process and be on my way. However, experience has taught me that if I have individual fruits or vegetables that will need keying in and/or weighing, something untoward will happen at the register.

Invariably a much more public, chaotic and time-consuming event occurs than would have, had I left the checking out to the professionals. So, I usually choose to stand in a pleasant stupor as someone with quicker fingers and better hand/eye coordination than I have whizzes through my items and bags them, and my only responsibility is to present payment.

I did not have that option on the Sunday morning in question. Not only was there no cashier on duty in any of the regular lines, but every self-checkout register was also in use. And almost everyone in line had full carts. I felt a short-lived surge of happiness when I spied a woman who was in the final stages of making her payment. I scurried in behind her, only to realize that she was not paying, she was staring in puzzlement at the screen and holding in her hand what looked to be coupons that were not processing correctly. I noticed then the red light flashing and her husband trying to flag down a store clerk.

I pulled out of line and spotted a register with only one woman checking out, and her cart was almost empty. However, it turned out that she preferred to run a few things through the register, then pause to bag them. And she was a meticulous bagger of items. She considered each gravely before determining which of her bags should hold it. The minutes ticked by and I was rapidly approaching my maximum tolerance for shopping. Impatient, I pulled out of line and prowled up and down the rows, trying to gauge the best place to jump in. Finally, I settled in behind a man who had a lot of groceries but appeared to be as eager as me to get the job done and get out.

By now my twenty-minute trip to the store had already stretched to fifty minutes. When my turn at the register came, I shot forward. Immediately I began thrusting the bar-coded items at the screen and sending them hurtling down the belt. The faster things progressed, the more my spirits lifted. I was almost done. Then came the dreaded produce. I grabbed the zucchini with determination. I scanned it in. I put it on the scale for weighing. I placed it on the belt. The machine announced an unexpected item on the belt. I took it off. I put it back. The message continued. The red light began to flash overhead, announcing to the world that I stood at the register of shame.

A clerk arrived. She fixed it. She left. I tried my next item, a red pepper. I scanned it. I weighed it. I put it on the belt. The unexpected item on the belt message returned. I touched a few things on the screen, shifted the pepper on and off the belt, glanced apologetically at the growing line-up behind me, but again the red light overhead flashed. The clerk returned. Trying to learn from my mistakes, I asked where I had gone wrong. She listed the proper check-out steps. I told her that’s what I’d done. She looked at me with weary skepticism, fixed the issue and left.

I keyed in the last item—an onion. I weighed it, put it on the belt and when a negative message didn’t pop up immediately, I hastily slid my credit card into the processor, removed it when it buzzed and prepared for escape. But instead of my receipt, a new message appeared, informing me that I had committed a serious error. The red light went off again.

My clerk—we had been together long enough that I had begun to think of her as “my” clerk—was at my side almost as soon as the red bat signal flashed. Her expression plainly said that she was disappointed in me. By using my card—which I’d like to add, the card reader had eagerly accepted, until it turned on me—before the produce problem was addressed, I had caused a more difficult issue to resolve than usual.

She got a slip to print, but she noted that the single onion appeared to have cost $3.49. The price for three pounds of onions was $1.99. Obviously, my lone onion did not weigh in at more than five pounds. But, because of the invisible line I’d crossed, her options to help me were limited. She could cancel out the order, and I could start over—clearly, neither she nor I wanted that. Or I could go back to produce and pick up additional onions.

I wanted only a quick escape. I assured her that I didn’t care how much the onion cost. I was happy to pay 3.49 if it would free me from my Groundhog Day checkout experience. I quickly shoved my purchases into a bag, gently pulled the receipt from her hand, thanked her and left with my overpriced onion. She was taken aback by my casual disregard for the excess onion cost. But to me, freedom has always been priceless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pulling Back the Curtain

It’s all on you, kid.

Four years ago when I finished writing the first book in the Leah Nash Mysteries series, Dangerous Habits, I decided to publish it as an independent “indie” author, rather than with a traditional publishing house. OK, wait a minute. That makes it sound like I had a bidding war for my book going on between major publishers but intrepid soul that I am, I struck out on my own. That’s not exactly how it happened.

I already had some experience with the world of traditional publishing. I had tried to place a nonfiction manuscript with a publishing house several years earlier. That experience taught me a lot about the long and arduous journey an author goes through between typing “The End” and actually seeing a book in print. Before anything else can happen, you have to find an agent. That can take weeks and often months of querying to connect with someone who says she’d like to read your manuscript. Then it takes additional waiting time of weeks to months for her to get back with you, usually to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But, if the happy day comes when you actually find an agent who wants to represent you, the query process starts all over again, only this time your agent is trying to find a publisher who wants to offer you a contract for your book. That again is a months-long process, which quite often ends not with a contract, but with your agent (if she’s very nice) regretfully telling you that it’s not your book’s fault, but it’s just not a good fit in the current publishing market. By then you’ve spent the better part of a year, or more, trying to get your book published. You can elect to start all over again with a different agent, or you can put your manuscript in the bottom drawer of your desk and move on to the next writing adventure, battered but unbowed.

Which brings me back to the point at which I finished writing my first fiction manuscript and decided to publish it myself as an indie author. I talked to a writer I knew who had taken that route, I read some articles, learned that I could publish both an ebook and a paperback version through Amazon and I thought, “How hard can this be?”

I’m here to tell you, a lot harder than you might think. What you gain in speed to publication from indie publishing is balanced by what you lose in terms of the services a traditional publisher provides, e.g., editing, proofing, formatting, book cover design, and marketing. In other words, it’s all on you, kid. Plus setting up a website, building and learning to manage a mailing list, and way too many technical details to get into here.

There was a huge learning curve for my first book, and I made many, many, many mistakes that cost me most of the profits and a significant portion of my sanity during my first two years as an indie author. And, sadly, because I am a slow learner, and there are always new things to learn about indie publishing, I continue to make mistakes as I stumble my way through my series. Still, the control, the freedom, and the immediacy indie publishing offers offsets—most of the time—the absence of the turnkey services traditional publishing provides. I still haven’t found the magic formula for marketing a series. Despite having a large family of supportive siblings and children who push the books as much as they can, and a husband who has never had a conversation with a friend—or a stranger—wherein he does not try to sell them a book, their reach is still fairly limited.

I’m in the home stretch for book 5,  Dangerous Flaws.  Editing and revisions are done, manuscript is with the proofer, with only corrections, formatting and a final print proof review to come. But instead of the vacation from all things writing that I like to take between books—wherein I immerse myself in other people’s books—I’ll be spending at least part of the time on the business end of writing. In this case, trying to master the art of building a marketing strategy—which apparently involves advertising plans, social media ads, costs per impression, click-through-rates, return on investment and Lord knows what else. And somewhere in there, developing the plot for book 6. Wish me luck.

I finished!

A short, but happy post. At long last, I have finished the draft of Book 5 in the Leah Nash series, Dangerous Flaws. For a variety of reasons, which I will not bore you with here (those who wish to be bored may contact me via email and I will be happy to oblige), I fell behind on my writing schedule. Like, way beyond the-dog-ate- my-homework behind.

Which I hate to do. To make up for it, I have abandoned normal things like cooking, cleaning, and washing my hair for a greater percentage of the last few weeks than I am comfortable specifying. I have not read for pleasure, nor written a blog post, nor kept up with my friends and family the way that I like to.

But today, I typed “The End,” on the last page of my 300+ page manuscript. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s not really the end. Editing and proofing and formatting and many other things must happen over the coming weeks before publication, I know. But for this brief, shining moment, I’m going to say I’m done. At least until tomorrow.

Now, I am going to drink a glass of wine, eat something I shouldn’t, and sleep the sleep of the just. Good night.

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