The Saturday Writing Quote — to create



“To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together, we are creating—whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

— Corita Kent, aka Sister Mary Corita Kent, Catholic nun, teacher & artist, who designed the 1985 Love stamp

Win a Food Lovers’ Village gift basket!


If you’ve read Death al Dente, you know that folks in Jewel Bay—including my sleuth, Erin Murphy—contribute generously to fundraisers to support the many needs of the tiny, unincorporated village—from the Food Bank to the Flower Basket Fund to scholarships to Adam Zimmerman’s Wilderness Camp.

New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak is once again raising funds for juvenile diabetes research in her annual online auction, running through May 31. Erin and I are offering a basket of goodies you’d find at The Merc in Jewel Bay — if it existed off the page! — and a signed copy of Death al Dente or Crime Rib (winner’s choice).

Last year’s basket sold for $100. As of Thursday morning, with two days to go, this year’s prize is still a bargain at $60 — so dive in and contribute to a great cause, and reap the bounty! Two more days!

(Update: Link corrected now — it should go directly to my auction item. If it’s still glitchy for you, let me know in the comments.)

Writing Process blog hop

Today, let’s talk about something different: writing process. Readers, I’ve learned, are fascinated by it — how on earth, they wonder, do these seemingly normal people come up with the stories they tell? How many people actually do live inside Leslie’s head? A glimpse inside someone else’s process can be an important part of a writer’s self-education, especially in the early stages. So when Peg Brantley asked me to participate in this “blog hop” — a series of writers answering the same questions — I agreed.

And to tell you the truth, it’s been fun for me to step back and think about my own process a bit.

CrimeRib_CV.indd1. What am I working on? I write two cozy mystery series, so I’m always working on several mss. at once, in different stages. CRIME RIB, second in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in Northwest Montana, will be out July 1. When the hot TV show Food Preneurs comes to Jewel Bay to film the annual steak-grill off, can Erin stop a killer—before the town’s reputation goes up in flames? 

I’ve just turned in the third village book, set mid-winter during the first annual Food Lovers’ Film Festival. Working title: IT HAPPENED ONE BITE. Very soon, I’ll be working with my editor on edits for the first book in the Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries, ASSAULT AND PEPPER (out March 3, 2015), in which Spice Shop owner Pepper Reece investigates when a resident of Seattle’s Pike Place Market is found dead on her shop’s doorstep and an employee is arrested for murder. I’ve just started writing the second in the series. Working title: GUILTY AS CINNAMON.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Part of the fun of a cozy mystery is the set-up: the amateur sleuth who feels compelled to investigate a crime because it touches her personally. Her role in the community gives her knowledge and perspective the police lack—and an inside track on the killer. The cozy is ultimately about community, and the amateur sleuth’s work is essential to restoring the social order in the community.

IMGP2143I like to think my cozies feature all the essential ingredients—the sleuth with the fun occupation we’d all like to try for a day, good friends and family, adorable pets, and great food—done thoughtfully. Both my protagonists—Erin Murphy in the Village series and Pepper Reece in the Seattle Spice Shop series—have a strong drive for social justice. I strive to tell stories that are about something. And the Village series presents a view of rural Montana that, while very real, will surprise readers who haven’t been here.

(Photo: Everyone needs a supervisor. Here, mine gives the WIP a stern inspection.)

3. Why do I write what I do?  The cozy is a great vehicle for story. I get to spend the day with people I enjoy in interesting places, see what happens when they’re thrown into tough spots, and through them, explore deeper personal issues. I’m a happier, healthier person because I spend most of my time with people who only exist because I made them up.

And I get to create yummy recipes—all easy and thoroughly-tested—and deduct the expense on my taxes.

IMGP21144. How does my writing process work? Depends what stage I’m at with the WIP—work in progress. At the moment, I’m planning the next book, which means hitting on the basic scenario, turning it over in my mind, and working out the key points. Who is killed? Why? How, where, and by whom are critical, of course, but “why” answers all those questions. What is Pepper’s motivation for investigating? I’ve got to play with the characters, taking long walks and asking them questions. (If you see me driving, pulled off the side of the road, I’m probably making notes on a plot point or scribbling out dialogue.) To me, story consists of this: a character with a problem that leads to a struggle and a resolution—all intertwined with other characters struggling with their own problems. I’ve got to know what drives the key characters—Pepper, the victim, the killer and the suspects, the primary witnesses, and Tag, Pepper’s ex-husband, a Seattle bicycle cop whose beat includes the Market and whose heart still beats for her. What do they most want? What will they do to get it? What will they do when they don’t get it?

And of course, while I’m making things hard for the characters, I’ve got to keep it fun for the readers. So there must be a subplot or two that keeps things light. As well, readers want to feel they’re actually visiting the places they’re reading about, so I need to make the village of Jewel Bay, Montana and the city of Seattle come alive.

Theme matters a lot to me, but it’s got to be subtle. I find it emerges on its own when I explore what matters most to the characters.

Simultaneously, I’m taking these ideas and developing them into scenes. Since one thing leads to another, the order of the scenes is usually pretty obvious. I take that list and create a rough outline—a road map. Flesh it out and break it into chapters, but it’s still pretty rough. Sometimes the chapter outline is 4 or 5 sentences, one of which may be “Pepper investigates” or “Erin does stuff—what is Danny doing???” The outline may include a patch of dialogue or description—which may stay as is, be heavily revised, or fly out the window when I actually write the scene.

Some writers disdain the outline, viewing it as a left-brained tool that kills spontaneity. “If I knew what happened,” I once heard a writer say, “I wouldn’t want to write the story.” Instead, she described a pains-taking process of figuring out what her characters would do, shaping her notes into scenes, putting the scenes in order, and writing the book. Well, yes. That’s exactly what I do—but I call it an outline! It’s an evolving, messy, kinetic, essential thing. “Essential” meaning necessary AND meaning it gets to the heart.

IMO, we cannot get to the heart of story if we don’t take the time to listen to our characters, to identify their problems and struggles. What they want and what that will drive them to do in this story. Whether you’re an outliner aka a planner or plotter, or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants), you’ve got to know these things about your characters, or your story will falter.

And that’s no fun for anyone.

Here’s suspense novelist Peg Brantley’s post on her process. Some similarities, some differences.  Tell me about yours in the comments.


The Saturday Writing Quote — on beginnings

It’s long puzzled me why, no matter how many drafts I write of a novel or story, I always end up spilling more ink on the beginnings than any other section, even as I near the end of the writing process. American novelist and social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1878-1959) may have identified the reason.

“All your first drafts will need revision, but the middle and end of them may not need a great deal. You had steam up when you wrote them; you were commencing to feel what you wanted to say. But watch your beginning. That was written when arm and brain were cold.”

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Theme Writing (1935), in Bridges: Readings for Writers 235, 237 (Donna Gorrell ed., 1985). (Quote found by Bryan Garner, in his blog, Garner’s Modern American Usage.)

Electronic court filing—one more complication to sleuthing

flathead-kalispell-courthouseBefore you send your fictional lawyer or legal assistant to the courthouse to file those papers, check whether your story state allows electronic court filing. Some even require it, as the federal courts do.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all filings are visible online. In the federal courts, the PACER system (short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) provides access to all case and docket information filings by parties and the bankruptcy, district, and appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. Users must register, but need not be lawyers. A small fees is charged — 10 cents a page, capped at $3 a document, with charges under $15/quarter waived — to cover the costs of running the system. Here’s what’s available, according to the system website:

“PACER provides access to federal case information nationwide. The PACER system offers quick, accurate information about current federal cases. You can obtain:

  • A listing of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys and trustees
  • A compilation of case related information such as cause of action, nature of suit and dollar demand
  • A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record
  • A claims registry
  • A listing of new cases each day in all courts
  • Written judicial opinions
  • Judgments or case status”

In some jurisdictions, the pleadings themselves may be available through PACER; each court maintains its own database, and systems differ. Information is available in real time, because of the mandatory ECF or Electronic Court Filing system.

In Montana, the Supreme Court and a handful of districts will begin a pilot program in 2014, to switch from paper to electronic filing, using an electronic file manager similar to the federal system. Rules and manuals are still being developed. Because filings often contain confidential information, access will be limited to judges, attorneys, and court staff; the public will have to go to the court to read files, to limit dissemination of confidential information online. Washington and many other states already use similar systems. Be aware that they vary, and don’t always include lower courts such as justice and municipal courts, where parties often represent themselves.

Clerks of court believe electronic filing will make things easier for all the parties involved, eliminate the lag time of sending and receiving paper documents and reduce the costs of postage and driving to file documents. The change will require some adjustment, especially for judges. Clerks may need to help parties who represent themselves.

So there goes one more reason to get your fictional lawyer or law firm staffer out of the office and give her the opportunity to snoop, overhear a conversation in the clerk’s office, or run into a witness in the hallway. Electronic systems make everything easier—except when they don’t!

Top left: Historic postcard of the Old Flathead County Courthouse, Kalispell, Montana, from the Montana Historical Society. Bottom right: the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula.

The Saturday Writing Quote — Madeleine L’Engel

“The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I turned to story, then, as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning, rather than in textbooks. But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the “How-To” book which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.”

— Madeleine L’Engle, 1983 lecture to Library of Congress, later published as “Dare to Be Creative”

Malicious good fun — and a new teapot!


Delighted to share the news that last weekend, Death al Dente won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel! The awards are given at the annual Malice Domestic Mystery Convention, celebrating the traditional mystery. Photographic evidence will now be admitted for your consideration.

Malice 2014 Best First


The Best First Novel nominees before our panel discussion, moderated by the marvelous novelist Margaret Maron. Front: me and Kendel Lynn. Back: LynDee Walker, Liz Mugavero, and Shelley Costa.

Malice 2014 Faith, LAB, teapot

Me with my editor Faith Black and that lovely little teapot!

Malice 2014 banquet


The program for the banquet and awards ceremony.


This was the 26th annual Malice Domestic Convention. The Best First Novel award has been given since the beginning; Best Nonfiction was added in the early 1990s. The Awards Committee believes that three other authors have been nominated for both Best Nonfiction and a fiction award, but that I am only the author to win both Best Nonfiction and a fiction award, in any category. No wonder I’m still smiling!

I also had the delight of moderating a panel discussion on legal mysteries, featuring Margaret Maron, Cathy Pickens, Martin Edwards, and Steve Steinbock. I’ll post those pictures when I get them.

Thanks for celebrating with me!


The Saturday Writing Quote: a painter’s view of creativity

“Creativity is a difficult word because people think it has some magical quality–-I don’t see that at all. Creativity is really following some sort of idea to some sort of conclusion—even going down the wrong road, getting lost, and incorporating that experience into what you’re doing.

The misconception many people have about creativity is that it’s some sort of external thing—that you’re hit by a bolt of lightning or that you have a great insight. It’s really a rational thing. When you find your own unique approach to working through problems, creativity manifests itself in your work.

Creativity is also the reason I think we involved in mixed media. It’s not so much that we’re trying to be creative as that we’re trying to accomplish something, and in our quest, we look for ways to get there.”

Skip Lawrence, American painter