Spotlight Sunday — Between a Wok and a Dead Place

Between a Wok and a Dead Place -- book cover, showing shop interior decorated for the Lunar New Year, and an Airedale terrier
Book cover for Between a Wok and a Dead Place

With the next Spice Shop mystery coming out in just a few weeks, it’s my turn to step into the spotlight at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, where twelve cozy authors cook up recipes — and crime. I’m telling a little of my own writing journey, and the inspiration and research for Between a Wok and a Dead Place. I hope you’ll hop over to the post and take a peek — and leave a comment for a chance to win a book and a Spice Shop prize package!

More about Between a Wok and a Dead Place, including where to find it in paperback, ebook, and audio, plus an excerpt and early praise, on my website

Saturday Creativity Quote — on cats and writing

Squirt, supervisor

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

— Muriel Spark, in A Far Cry from Kensington, quoted by my friend Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

I don’t know whether Spark was being literal or ironic. My own cat loves my desk chair — he’s about the same color as the leather, creating a hazard for us both — and he’s been known to stomp across my desk and step on the keyboard, even sending an email full of periods once. And I regularly apologize on Zoom calls for the loud cries of the cat protesting being shut out of the room. But mostly, he reads (with his eyes shut) or supervises. Could I do the work without him? Maybe, but I’d rather not try.

Saturday Creativity Quote — observing the details

I’m a firm believer in learning from artists working in other disciplines, such as music and painting. My husband and I recently attended an opening at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana, for our friend, painter Haakon Ensign, who quoted the great painter, illustrator, and sculptor Frederick Remington as saying “you need detail, but the right detail.”

Or as a contrasting pair of American novelists have put it:

“Be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” — Henry James

“One of your gifts as a writer is that you are a sensitive witness to the Universe.”
Johnny Worthen, speaking at the 2023 Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

(Painting: W. Haakon Ensign, oil on canvas, from the exhibit W. Haakon Ensign: Wildlife and Water — Lucky in the Flathead, June 2 — Aug 6, 2023, Hockaday Museum of Art. Look closely for the artist’s dog, Lucky, sniffing the ground just above the lakeshore.)

Writing Wednesday – Returning to a Setting

When I gave a talk on setting, called “I Felt Like I Was There” at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April, I talked about returning to a setting, giving the reader more or different information about it each time. One example is my use of Seattle’s Pike Place Market in the Spice Shop mysteries, where the reader discovers bits and pieces of history, architecture, and daily life in the Market while walking through it with my POV character, a detail here, another detail there, building on the images she’s creating in her mind.

Another example is Mick Herron’s use of the basement apartment in This is What Happened, where we learn something more about the apartment and the building each time we visit it, each detail adding to our vision of the place but also providing details that are relevant to the plot—although we the reader don’t know that until later.

A recurring setting can also be a touchstone, a place of emotional significance for the characters. The role the place plays in the story can be primary or secondary. In Blind Faith, my second standalone suspense novel (written as Alicia Beckman), one of those places is the Rainbow Bar. We see it first through the lens of Lindsay, a lawyer handling the sale of the property, who has her own deep connection to it, then again through another POV character, for whom the place has a very different meaning.

Then I read When We Believed in Mermaids by PPWC guest of honor Barbara O’Neal, the story of two sisters who reunite after one believed the other had died fifteen years earlier. One sister has long admired Sapphire House, a landmark in her adopted New Zealand home town, a house with its own tragic history, whose oceanfront setting and architectural details remind her of her childhood home in California, destroyed in an earthquake. Now Sapphire House is hers and she’s planning its renovation and her family’s future in it. Each time she goes to the house, she learns more about herself as well as about the two sisters who lived there. The house comforts her even as the life she’s built is threatened, and the mystery in its past intrigues her.

Each time you return to a setting, does the reader learn something new? How do you reveal what emotions the place evokes, and how do they relate to the unfolding plot?

Saturday Creativity Quote — on discipline

Plum Lovely — acrylic by Christine Vandeberg (used with permission)

“So, yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say. And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun like paying bills and cleaning the cat box. But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It takes a lot of courage, actually. See what happens.”

– Susan Piver, “Getting Stuff Done by Not Being Mean to Yourself” (2010 blog post)

Saturday Creativity Quote — on book banning

Leslie's booksehlf
Leslie’s bookshelf

“If books weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t be removed. … Books are hot objects. They belong on shelves. They belong in people’s hands,” says novelist Meg Wolitzer, who has little sympathy for the idea that people need to be protected from books. “Reading things that you’re not ready for,” she said, “gets you ready for things in the world.”

— novelist Meg Wolitzer (Washington Post book newsletter, 5/26/23)

May your words be powerful and true. May they help people see and prepare for “things in the world.”