Countdown to the Lunar New Year!

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

The Year of the Dragon! So fiery after the sweet and mild year of the Rabbit. (HA! Have you been paying attention to the world? The dragon it is!) The Lunar New Year arrives on Sat, Feb 10, so I’m celebrating with a countdown. After all, my latest Spice Shop mystery, Between a Wok and a Dead Place, is set at the Lunar New Year. For the next 10 days, I’ll be sharing snippets of the story and its origins, recipes, other books of the season, and more. And there will be giveaways — signed paperbacks and audio codes.

Ceremonial gate above street in Seattle's Chinatown International District
Ceremonial gate, Seattle’s Chinatown International District (author photo)

Here’s how it all started. A few years ago, Mr. Right and I visited Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, chronicling the history of the Asian community in the Pacific Northwest, and toured the Kong Yick Hotel, a community center and residential hotel dating back to the 1880s. Naturally I started to wonder: What if a body was found in the basement of an old hotel? What other secrets might linger in a building where so many people had lived and worked—and died? So I created the Gold Rush Hotel on what was, when I last saw it, a vacant lot in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. 

The research was a book nerd’s dream. I pored over oral histories from early residents of the CID, as it’s called, along with maps and photos, and an intriguing account of the residential hotels, which were vital to the region’s culture and economy. 

When I read a historian’s account of traveling with her father as a child in the early 1970s delivering fruits and vegetables, and his visits to the old Chinese hotels and restaurants, I felt one of those satisfying clicks writers live for. Community is key to immigrants, but especially to those who have faced extreme prejudice and legal exclusion. That, I realized, was why Francis Wu, my fictional hotelier, held on to the Gold Rush long after it closed. Why he was so determined that it stay in the family, despite his son’s indifference. 

And why he did not destroy the apothecary in the basement, despite what it had cost him. 

Join me over the next week and a half to celebrate the Lunar New Year as only book — and food — lovers can!

(If you’re seeing this on my blog, please chime in on Facebook or Instagram for a fun conversation and a chance to win WOK.)

The Saturday Creativity Quote — stuck on what happens next?

“If you are stuck and asking what should happen next, head straight for what cannot happen. That’s the direction you want to go. The goal is not to play within the rules, but to break them. Story is not about what is realistic, reasonable, safe and ordinary. It is about the extreme things that happen to people who are not ready. It’s about the dramatic things that people like you and me might do-but do not-under duress.”

– Don Maass, Writer Unboxed: It Can’t Happen Here, 3/4/2020

I first heard Don say this years ago when he spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference held by the Authors of the Flathead, a multi-genre writers’ group based in Kalispell, Montana. I remember the moment clearly. “What is one thing your main character would never do?” he asked. “Wear lipstick,” I wrote in my notebook, clueless enough not to realize what he would say next. “Now make them do it.”

photo of welded sculpture of a heron, with a mountain lake in the background

And that’s become one of my most important tools for unfolding plot from the characters themselves. Not wearing lipstick might seem trivial, but in that unpublished manuscript, it led me to think about where my MC, a deputy sheriff, might feel she had to wear lipstick. Another character is a national news reporter who’s just been fired from her job and retreats to her summer home in Montana where, naturally, she responds to her lover’s unsolved murder by filming a television segment, including an interview with the deputy sheriff.

In my Spice Shop mysteries, Pepper Reece would never ask her ex-husband, a Seattle cop on the bike patrol, for help — until she has to.

What would your character never do? Betray a friend? Betray a confidence? Fire a gun? Run into a burning building? Run from a burning building? Take a welding class? Wear pink? Eat a sweet potato? Make it matter. Make her do it.

Well, except maybe for that the sweet potato.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the importance of writing from within

“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.” — Paula Danziger

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” — Virginia Woolf

“You are a writer. You have a story to tell. You have something worthwhile to say. What you’ve already learned on your journey will play a part in what you write, one way or another. And your writing has a job to do: entertainment, teaching, healing, passing on wisdom or passion or comfort.” – Juliet Marillier, on Writer Unboxed

“You need to claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.” – Anne Wilson Schaef, who wrote extensively about addiction and popularized the concept of co-dependence

I think you catch my drift.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — outlining a book you admire

One of the best tools for improving our writing is to analyze what we read. I mentioned this last week when I talked about reading. Let’s take that to the next level.

“The ability to see our own work clearly is one of the greatest challenges of writing. Authors fill in the blanks of their characters and world and stories in their heads without realizing whether it’s coming across effectively on the page to readers. It’s almost impossible to assess our own work as objectively as we can with other people’s.” — editor and novelist Tiffany Yates Martin, writing on publishing guru Jane Friedman’s blog

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

Start, Martin says, with yourself. Your reaction. Then dive in, analyzing more deeply.

I’ve suggested this before, offering specific suggestions for outlining a book you want to learn from. Yes, colored pencils or highlighters are involved. I’m actually gearing up to do this myself, reading several books by an author I admire, then choosing one to outline deeply to watch how she handles story. Heck, I might do two. She’s doing something readers love and respond to, and I want to grasp it more fully. There’s no better way than breaking it down, scene by scene, element by element.

Sharpen your pencils — or your highlighters — and go!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — simple tools for improving our work

I’ve been talking a lot here lately about the importance of diving in, of getting started. Of moving past our fears and doubts and into the work. Sometimes that means pausing to look more deeply at those fears and doubts, investigating what is holding us back from actually doing the work. Sometimes it means finding tools that help us deepen and improve our work. I’ll be talking about a few of those tools over the next few weeks.

First up, reading. Reading like a writer. In On Writing, Stephen King famously wrote “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Schedule it. Ten minutes a night before you fall asleep won’t do. You can’t fully dive into a story and connect with it unless you’ve given yourself the time. Mystery writer Catriona McPherson says reading is as much a part of our job as writers as putting words on the page.

Read up. I got this tip from Elizabeth George, at a fabulous week-long workshop when I was a beginning writer. (I reconnected with her at the New England Crime Bake in 2015, when this photo was taken.) Read the authors whose work you most enjoy, who are writing what you write or want to write, whose careers and success you admire. The writers who inspire you. If you’re already published, reading authors in your genre who are publishing at the same level as you may not teach you much about craft, but if they’re stretching the genre in some way, striking readers in a way you want to emulate, or in a way you don’t quite grasp, read them, too. Choose what you read with a purpose.

Analyze what you read. I’ve written about “reading like a writer” before, and I still believe it’s a critical skill. Sum up a book by writing a review, just for yourself. (If you want to write a review on BookBub or another site, that’s great, but it’s a very different type of review!) Reread my earlier post for a few tips on what to note as you write your own reviews. (We’ll talk about more in-depth analysis later.)

Find more tools for reading like a writer in Francine Prose’s book of the same name.

“Reading superior novels arouses the mind in a way that nothing else quite does,” wrote Joseph Epstein in The Novel, Who Needs It?, quoted by Jacob Brogan in the Washington Post.

He’s right. And it will improve your writing like nothing else, too.