“Key to creativity is the balance of focus on the self and focus on others, inwardness and outwardness, deep reflection and motivated action. The ability to appropriately toggle between inner and outer worlds is one of the artist’s greatest assets.” — Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind
We come to the page first as readers. If you had older siblings, like I did, you probably ached to read as a small child—to decipher those black marks on the white page, or to know what your parents were talking about when they discussed the day’s mail or something one had seen in the newspaper. Then you learned, and a world opened up, and eventually, you knew you had to be part of it.
I’m a big fan of books on writing, on classes and workshops and critique groups. But the best tool you have in improving your craft is to read like a writer. I highly recommend Francine Prose’s 2006 book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.
My tip: Write your own book reviews. Keep track of what you read and what you thought. I started doing this ages ago when I first started writing, and it’s been hugely important. Use a small spiral notebook, no bigger than 5X9. In the front, reserve two pages for that year’s chronological list. List each title, author, and year of publication. I don’t number my list, but do note every 5th book in the margin, along with the month. I use highlighters to distinguish mysteries and general fiction; you might highlight other genres. If you’re trying to read more books by authors or about main characters vastly different from you, use another color for diversity.
Then write a review of every book. I often make notes as I read on something that delights or annoys me. When I finish the book, I note the date, then write a page or two or three. Summarizing the plot is a good exercise, revealing whether it held together, was memorable, or gaped with holes you didn’t notice as you read. (Why not? Too spell-bound by the language or the main character? Too caught up in the mystery, the what-ifs and whys? Note that, too.) Did the setting stand out? The main character and her motivations? The language? The structure? What other elements worked or didn’t?
Be positive as well as negative. Identify at least one thing you want to emulate—the author’s use of POV or how she weaves physical descriptions in through action. Note the failures, the imagery the author clearly thought important that escaped you, the sentences you never understood despite re-reading them two or three times, the failure to evoke a visceral or emotional response. Why did the story work or not work for you? If you’ve read other books by this author, how does this one compare?
At year end, you might want to see how many mysteries you’ve read, whether any are eligible for awards you’re eligible to vote for, or just look back fondly.
I’ll warn you that when you first start reading as a writer, reading isn’t as much fun as when you were six and enraptured by everything on the page. That will pass; you’ll learn to critique and enjoy.
An insight is an unexpected shift in the way we understand things. It comes without warning. It’s not something that we think is going to happen and that’s why it’s unexpected. It feels like a gift and in fact it is.” – Gary Klein, an expert on decision-making, quoted in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire
“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson wrote, and though she rarely left Amherst or even her home, she was so right. Many of us had trouble reading when the pandemic first hit—days at home with no appointments, no running around, seems like the perfect time to read until it descends, dusted with anxiety and uncertainty. But that sense has eased for me, and I hope for you, too.
Mr. Right and I had a grand adventure in January, traveling to Paris to see the Louvre’s exhibit commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo DaVinci in France, in 1519. Besides spending the day at the exhibit, which was truly magnificent, we walked, wandering Paris, getting lost, finding churches and statues and gardens we might never have found with a plan. So in May, I found myself craving a touch of Paris. The only unread book on my shelves set there was an ARC (advance review copy) of Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, historical espionage set in 1938-39, following an Austrian-born American actor in Paris to make a movie who finds himself the target of German operatives who need a mole in the industry. I have no idea how I got the book—most likely a promo copy in a mystery convention book bag—but it was great fun. The actor’s home base in Paris is a hotel in the First—la Premiere—the district where we stayed, and I enjoyed tracing his travels through the city with the map on the frontispiece and my own memory. Furst has written a series of novels set in Europe in the run up to WW II and during the war, and they’re worth searching out.
Then a friend gave me The Little French Bistro by Nina George, author of The Little Paris Bookshop. Though Bistro starts and ends in Paris, much of the book is set in a small town on the Breton coast, a part of the country I haven’t visited. Not in person, anyway. It’s delightful—the story of a woman blossoming at 60 after a lifetime of oppression, finally making her own choices and finding joy in happy accidents.
I loved New Orleans on my one visit and am eager to return with Mr. Right, but visiting on the page is great—no heat, no bugs! Plus it’s so easy to get out of the city—just turn the page! The Orion Mask by Greg Herron is an homage to the gothic mysteries of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, following a young gay man who discovers that the mother he never knew came from a family with a grand history and a terrible secret that could have consequences for him all these years later. Set partly in NOLA and partly on a plantation a short drive away. Spooky, atmospheric, and fun.
If there were a prize for best title, The Murderess of Bayou Rosa by Ramona DeFelice Long would win. How can you not pick that up? Set in the early 1920s in a small town southwest of NOLA, with later scenes in Baton Rouge and Memphis, it’s the story of Geneva Amais, a young teacher, and her mother, Joelle, the murderess. Family secrets drive this book, too, and it’s a great trip.
Where to next? So many choices! Where are you booking your travel these days?
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. — Albert Einstein, quoted in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire
Any cook can tell you how easy it is to overstock the spice cabinet! You try a new-to-you recipe and buy an ounce of this and a pinch of that, but what do you do with the rest of the jar? Well, search a good cookbook or online recipe source for more options.
But if you’re stocking a new kitchen, or you want to pare down to basics, here’s Pepper’s list of essential dried spices. (Okay, it’s mine, but we’ll pretend she isn’t fictional for a few minutes.)
Of course, your preference and how you like to eat play a big part. If you enjoy Mexican dishes, add more peppers and some dried cilantro. If you eat a lot of Italian, add rosemary. If you love making soups and stews, you need bay leaves.
And of course, blends are a great way to add a lot of flavor in a hurry.
In alphabetical order: Basil Chili Powder Cinnamon (ground, but sticks are great, too) Cumin Ginger Nutmeg Oregano Paprika (sweet or spicy; smoked is a fave in our house) Red Pepper Flakes Thyme
Plus a good sea salt* and black peppercorns and a grinder.
What’s the difference between sea salt and table salt? Sea salt is formed by evaporation of ocean or lake water, with minimal processing, while table salt comes from underground salt deposits. (“I’m going to the salt mine,” my father used to say before descending to his basement office.) Each has a different crystal structure. In addition, most commercial table salts also include iodine, which before the early 20th century, was often difficult to get in a diet, particularly for Midwesterners. That’s no longer the case, with changes in how we eat and where our food comes from. Table salt can oxidize to form iodine, and give food an acrid flavor.
If you bake, you’ll want kosher salt, so named because it’s used to draw out water in the koshering process. It’s got a coarser structure than sea or table salt, and is particularly good for baking. I have read that professional bakers prefer Diamond Crystal over Morton’s, that lab tests have shown it to be more consistent in structure and therefore salinity, and that most recipes are written expecting the cook to use Diamond Crystal. So that’s what Pepper and I do!
Why didn’t I mention garlic? Because you should use fresh when you can, though the chopped garlic in a jar is a lifesaver, as is jarred ground ginger. But dried minced garlic and garlic powder have a place, too, unless you’ve got a super-small kitchen!
By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us.
– Alan Watts, quoted in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire
Pepper Reece loves a good mystery — on the page, or in real life! She also enjoys selling culinary cozies along with the cookbooks and chef lit on the shelves in the Spice Shop, the shop she owns in Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market. So when Assault and Pepper came out and a reader asked for Pepper’s reading list, I was happy to oblige. Here’s Part One and Part Two.
In The Solace of Bay Leaves (out in ebook and audio on July 21, 2020 and in paper on October 20), Pepper once again mentions her love of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, triggered by the discovery of a book of the books and videos among the things her parents stored with her before decamping to Costa Rica. Sadly, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop is closed in real life, but I’ve kept it alive on the page, and Pepper credits a former law firm staffer now working there for feeding her love of medieval mysteries with the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne and the Dame Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer. She’s also enjoying the Crispin Guest Medieval Mysteries by Jeri Westerson, which she discovered herself, and is just finishing the first, Veil of Lies.
Another series she’s recently discovered, through her friend, Seetha, are the Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey, set in 1920s India and featuring the first woman solicitor in Bombay. The series starts with The Widows of Malabar Hill and continues with The Satapur Moonstone. When Pepper visits Maddie in the hospital, she takes her two UK historicals, In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen and the latest in the Dandy Gilver series by Catriona McPherson.
“‘Every woman is a priestess if she loves life and can work magic on herself and those who are sacred to her. It’s time for women to remind themselves of the powers they have inside. The goddess hates to see abilities go to waste, and women waste their abilities far too often.”
– Pascale, in The Little French Bistro by Nina George