Writing Wednesday — All the Scentses

Leslie’s desk

When I was writing Blind Faith, my second stand-alone suspense novel, I quickly knew that a secondary character named Irene Danich was very fond of roses. Irene was a strong-willed woman, born in 1919 in a small Montana mining town. Irene lost both her husband and her daughter early, leaving her to raise two young granddaughters—one of whom, Carrie, is a major character with her own story line and POV. Beautiful and with a strong personal sense of style, but without a lot of money, Irene loved pretty things but was rarely able to indulge in them.

What, I wondered, was Irene’s signature scent? My own mother, a little younger than Irene, was not able to help me, and the only department store in the area with a perfume counter had closed. I remembered that a Sister in Crime, Angela Saunders, had once posted on the group message board about her love of perfume. I tracked her down and peppered her with questions.

Angie helped me focus on identifying something simple, romantic and floral that would have been available in small-town drugstores in the 1930s to 50s. Drugstore perfumes flourished in that era and some, I learned, were knock-offs of pricey Parisian scents. We settled on an eau de cologne, Yardley’s Red Roses, a good brand but not fancy, also available in soap and bath powder. She might have flirted with other brands over the years, but always returned to this one.

And oh, those lovely bottles! I remembered how much I loved my own mother’s collection, watching her choose one to wear, and being allowed to dab on a precious drop or two myself. They changed over time, and Carrie keeps three of them, each different, on a display shelf in her bungalow.

The point of the cologne was not just to characterize Irene, whom we see in action just twice, but also to characterize Carrie’s memory of Irene and of their relationship, which is pivotal. Readers can’t smell the pages, of course, and they may not have any association with a classic mid-century scent. But my hope is that the mention of it, and the reference to the bottles, will help readers create their own sense of this woman, even if the scent that emerges from their memories is nothing like what arises in mine.

Maybe you can do something similar with one of your characters. A man who wears Gray Flannel is very different from one who wears Old Spice, just as a woman who dabs on a scent created at a custom perfumerie in Paris is very different from one who gives off waves of lavender and lemon grass essential oils.

BLIND FAITH, written as Alicia Beckman, is out this week in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks.

A photograph. A memory. A murdered priest.

A passion for justice.

A vow never to return.

Two women whose paths crossed in Montana years ago discover they share keys to a deadly secret that exposes a killer—and changes everything they thought they knew about themselves.

Find it here: Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Books-A-Million
Bookshop.org
Indie Bound
And your local booksellers!

Read an excerpt and early reviews on my website.

Saturday Creativity Quote

In my view, as a writer, lawyer, and former bookseller, there are no bad books*. Every book serves a purpose and should spark a conversation. The American Library Association has designated September 18-24, 2022 as National Banned Books Week. Learn more about challenges to books and advocacy from the ALA.

“Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them.”

— novelist Julia Alvarez

* There are some badly written books, of course, but that’s a different thing altogether!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — making sense of the senseless

Like many of you, I’m finding it difficult to write right now, after the shootings in Uvalde, TX, and Buffalo, NY, and so many others. After those tragedies, reminded once again of our failures as a society to protect the innocent and to deal with conflict without violence, writing, painting, and other creative work can feel impossible. As pointless as the tragedies themselves. But it is not.

Editor, writer, and teacher Tiffany Yates Martin wrote a deeply heartfelt, practical essay earlier this week titled How Can Writing Matter in the Face of Suffering, including several ways to use our creative work to process pain, find a way into action, to connect, to give voice, and to write for hope. Read it. Here’s one paragraph that struck me.

Story illuminates the world, a lens through which others may find some measure of understanding of their own tragedies, their own pain. Working through difficult and painful things in our writing may offer insight and aid to others amid their own struggles.

Martin ends by quoting another writer, editor Susan De Freitas, that also struck me when I read it in a piece on Jane Friedman’s blog: “Wherever you are, if you’ve been struggling with this question, Why write when the world is on fire?, remember: Your words are water.”

And if you’re thinking what can any of us do to change the laws or public policy or diminish hatred, remember Margaret Mead’s words. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

“Be water, my friend,” as the late Bruce Lee wrote, reminding us that flow is our natural and most powerful state. Let your tears flow, and the words will follow.

(Illustration: photo of an unattributed quote and collage I spotted online months ago, printed out, and keep on my desk. It reads: Do what you can with what you have where you are.”)

Books so good, it’s criminal — the mystery award winners

It’s award season in the mystery and crime fiction world, with the Leftys and Agathas given at the Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic fan conventions earlier this month, and Thursday evening, the Edgars, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America. All events were held in person, for the first time since LCC was shut down in March 2020, just a few hours in. MWA also live-streamed its ceremony, and you can catch it on YouTube.

Copying the lists of nominees and winners would make this post way too long, but I do want to share the links: Lefties, Agathas, and Edgars. The first two are voted on by fans attending the convention; the Edgars are judged by panels of MWA members. Each is a genuine honor. Congratulations to all the nominees and winners — and a huge thanks to the judges.

Check out the lists. I’m sure that, like me, you’ll find books and authors that are new to you, even if you’re an avid reader who tries to stay current. It’s the nature of lists to differ, though some appear on multiple lists, a particularly good sign.

A sign of good reading ahead!

Writing Wednesday – The Power of Community

Leslie’s desk

I’m just back from Albuquerque and Left Coast Crime, one of the three main fan conventions in mystery and crime fiction. And next week, I’m headed to Bethesda, MD, for Malice Domestic. My first conventions in three years! I found myself both unsure and excited. Unsure what to pack. How many bookmarks do I need? How many pairs of shoes? What am I forgetting, besides my mind?

And excited to see my community. Readers, writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, people in the publishing business. People who love curling up with a good book—and who love getting together with others to talk about the experience.

One of my writing communities has long been Sisters in Crime and the Guppies chapter, which I helped start. In 2014, SinC published a book called Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Writes of Passage

My essay is titled “Group Power, For the Writer Alone in Her Room.” I was reminded of it recently when a member of an online writers’ group I’m in said of the cons, “I’m not sure I could do that. I’m an introvert.” Let me share this passage:

“I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Books, 2012). Like most writers, I’m an introvert, albeit a noisy one, or maybe an ambivert. Cain contends that most institutions in our culture—schools, corporations, even churches—push extroversion and emphasize group activities and teamwork. That emphasis often results in forming a group to tackle a problem, whether that’s really the best solution or not, and discounts key natural strengths of introverts. But while introverts need quiet time—alone in our rooms, with the voices and stories in our heads—we also like to cooperate. We value each group member’s voice, and we encourage innovation.

“That’s what makes the writers’ group so powerful. A group can help us learn new information or sift through it. SinC’s Guppies chapter thrives on that principle, with subgroups for those seeking an agent, learning Scrivener, and setting goals. A dozen writers in my neck of the woods recently formed a business and marketing group. The writer experienced with Mail Chimp presented a tutorial for would-be newsletter authors terrified by the specter of yet more technology. Those without Facebook or Twitter accounts met at a café with wifi and walked through the setup together. I helped the group learn to use our Word Press blog and conduct a blog tour. We teach, puzzle, brainstorm—and toast sales with champagne.

What groups do best, in my ambiverted opinion, is encourage its members and leverage information. Every opportunity and accomplishment I’ve had as a writer started with something I learned from a group. And with SinC and the Guppies, I didn’t even have to put on shoes.”

I do hope you’ll put on shoes and go find your community—on line or when the time is right for you, in person. And if you’re at Malice, please introduce yourself. Just don’t say anything about my shoes.

Left Coast Crime

Mr. Right to patient: Leslie’s away at a mystery convention.

Patient, looking puzzled: You mean, she doesn’t know what kind of a convention it is?

But you read or write mysteries, maybe both, so you know that a mystery fan convention, or con, is a weekend filled with readers, writers at all stages from just beginning to multi-published, editors, agents, librarians, booksellers — anyone who considers themselves a fan of mystery and crime fiction. There are panel discussions, interviews, movie screenings, games, signings, speed-dating events, book rooms, and so much more.

Left Coast Crime is one of the three major mystery fan cons, along with Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. LCC is held somewhere in the western part of the country in late winter or early spring. This year, it’s in Albuquerque on April 7-10, and I’ll be there, on two panels and hosting a banquet table with my friend Kelly Garrett aka Emmeline Duncan.

My panels:

Small Town Crime love this topic and love that we write in a variety of subgenres (Fri 4:00-4:45)
Pam Clark (M)
Leslie Budewitz/Alicia Beckman
John McMahon
Terry Shames
Heather Young

Legal Themes: Does Fiction Get it Right?another timeless topic! (Sat 4:00-4:45)
L.F. Robertson (M)
Leslie Budewitz/Alicia Beckman
Margaret Callison Morse
Jay Shepherd

Here’s the full panel schedule. If you’re going, let’s connect! (If you’re in the area, note that day passes are available.)

And if not this year, maybe we can catch up at Left Coast Crime in Tucson in 2023!

Writing Wednesday – The Gratitude Email

Leslie’s desk

I’m a big fan of marketing coach and teacher Dan Blank of We Grow Media, who advocates what he calls a human-centered approach to marketing. Yesterday, in a Zoom session, he talked about putting joy in our marketing and promotion, and suggested making a regular practice of sending “gratitude emails,” short thank you notes to someone who has inspired us, encouraged us, or otherwise influenced us, particularly in our creative work.

My first was an actual snail-mail letter, to a 90+ y.o. Jesuit who taught music when I was a college student at Seattle University more than forty years ago. In search of a break from academics, I signed up for classical guitar lessons, even though my guitar playing was limited to folk songs and singing and playing with a group at Mass. My teacher recruited me to join a trio formed by a music major named Karen. I was definitely the weak link. One evening the three of us gathered in my dorm room to practice for Karen’s upcoming senior recital. She had the brilliant idea to ask Father Waters, the dorm rector, to join us. As we played a modern atonal piece that had me stumbling, he stopped us and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. “They’ll only know you made a mistake,” he said, speaking of the audience, “if you tell them.” Meaning, of course, through my reaction. It’s a lesson that goes far beyond music performance, and one I’ve never forgotten.

I’m not expecting a reply. I simply wanted to say thanks, and I hope, put a smile on an elderly priest’s face, as the memory and writing the letter have put one on mine.

What do you think? Might a week—or more—of gratitude emails help you find more joy in marketing your books? Reconnect with an old friend? Reassure someone who’s struggling? Add a smile where it might be needed?

(And no, this is not an invitation to thank me, though of course, I always like hearing from you!)

Writing Wednesday — Staying Creative and “The Rules”

Recently, a list has been circulating on Facebook titled “33 Ways to Stay Creative.” (I wasn’t able to trace its origins; when the “My Modern Met” blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared it in 2011, they couldn’t find the author, either.)

I love this because it’s concrete and specific — these are things we can actually do, and too often don’t. It reminds us that creativity doesn’t just happen by accident; we can feed and nurture it, to better feed and nurture ourselves.

My friend Elaine Snyder, an amazingly creative buckskin clothier, commented that she’d add to #24 “test the rules,” because they can provide insight. And that got me thinking about writers, often beginners, who complain about “the rules” without actually digging for that insight Elaine mentioned. Take, for example, the complaint about “the rule” against adverbs. “Adverbs are perfectly fine,” they say. “X uses them and everyone praises X’s writing.”

This “rule,” and almost every other rule about writing, is really a guideline, a good practice grown from experience. At its core, it’s a reminder to choose every word with care and intention. When you’re tempted to use an adverb, for example, ask yourself first if you’ve used the right verb. Truly think about the action you’re describing, the person taking the action, what they’re feeling at that moment, their motives and inner conflicts, their physical capabilities, the setting—the entire situation. When you find the right verb, you might not need an adverb. If you decide you do need one, like the much-acclaimed X, then it will have been a deliberate choice, not a lazy fallback. You may write an entire story without a single adverb—or you may let them fall drippingly, deliciously, bountifully off every character’s tongue.

So the next time you find yourself griping about “the rules,” test them. Follow, flaunt, fall somewhere in between. See what happens.

And revel in the creativity of it all.

Writing Wednesday — Getting Started in the Mystery Community

Leslie’s desk

Earlier this year, a blog subscriber sent me this email:
I am working on a novel that falls into the mystery genre and it’s time I got involved with the mystery community. I have been to many writing conferences but never focused on any genre before. I see that you are/have been involved with Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America. I’d like your take on what an as-yet-unpublished writer in the genre can expect from their involvement with these (and I know there are others) organizations. I can usually attend one writing conference per year, am comfortable with zoom meetings, and as mentioned I particularly like being connected to writers in the west.

I thought it might be useful to share my reply, edited a bit, since I think my advice applies broadly. I left in the regional references; with more than 60 Sisters in Crime chapters and eleven regional MWA chapters, many with meetings throughout their geographic spread, it’s not hard to find a mystery-focused writing community. And the benefits are top-notch, no matter where you are.

Hi, Lynn –

[Lovely comments about my latest book omitted.]

So where should an aspiring mystery writer start? With reading, of course, but you’ve nailed that. Either SinC or MWA would be a great starting point; MWA is geared toward the professional writer, while SinC’s mission is a little broader. Check out the SinC Guppies chapter; it’s online, a boon for those of us in the boonies, and aimed at the new and unpublished. The Guppies offers a regular slate of classes led by some excellent instructors – I’m sure this year’s schedule is on the website. The Guppies online discussion list is a great resource, although it could be a bit daunting for a newbie. SinC National – you have to be a member to join a chapter – also offers webinars at least once a month on a wide range of craft, promotion, and business topics; members have access to the archives. And both have truly excellent newsletters – the Guppies’ First Draft is bi-monthly and InSinC is quarterly.

You might also check into the Denver SinC chapter, especially if you get there with any regularity – under normal circumstances. I know several of the leaders but I don’t know how they’ve handled programming in the last two years; I imagine that most of it is now online, but that they will begin moving to a hybrid model with in-person events and an online option as soon as it’s reasonable to do so. In-person connections are invaluable.

MWA’s Rocky Mountain chapter meets in Denver, with terrific monthly programming. (I say modestly, having spoken there a few years ago, on common mistakes writers make about the law.) The meetings are in-person and broadcast, with replays of the programs available online and summarized in the monthly newsletter.

I’m also a big believer in self-education, and a great resource is the new MWA book, How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from the Mystery Writers of America, ed by Lee Child and Laurie R. King. (I do have a small piece in it.) The hardcover came out last April; I think the paperback will be out this spring.

You asked about conferences focused on mystery. Since you’ve attended writing conferences, you probably know the difference between writers conferences, aimed at the craft and business of writing, and fan conventions like Malice, Left Coast Crime, and Bouchercon, where the goal is to create opportunities for fans to interact with authors, although other industry pros also attend. The main conferences focused on mystery writing have changed a bit but I think they are the biennial California Crime Writers conference (a joint event between the MWA SoCal chapter and the CA Writers Club, IIRC), the New England Crime Bake (a joint MWA-SinC event), Killer Nashville, and Book Passage Mystery Conference, sponsored by the Book Passage bookstore just north of San Francisco. I attended the Crime Bake when I was SinC president and it is fabulous. I also attended the BP conference and loved it, but that was 20 years ago and I don’t know much about it now. Several SinC and MWA chapters hold one-day events, too – Desert Sleuths in Phoenix comes to mind; membership is not typically required. I know the Crime Bake and Desert Sleuths offered some sort of Zoom version in the last couple of years. See if you can find a calendar of events on the SinC website – that will provide a lot more info than I can. I did find the conventions helpful when I was starting out, but they are a vastly different type of event, and I hate to see writers attend with the wrong expectations.

So that’s what I can suggest. If you have more questions, do feel free to ask. And my thanks again for your kind words about the More Than Malice panel and Bitterroot Lake. They mean a lot.

All the best to you and your mother in this new year,

Leslie

Writing Wednesday — The Writing Practice

Leslie’s desk

This is the time of year when many people plan to start a book or a story or a screenplay, some for the umptieth time, some for the first. It’s also the time of year when resolve flags and we think “what was I thinking, imagining I could do this?”

So I want to revisit one common piece of advice, “write every day.” In fact, some people say that’s a rule, maybe even the only rule.

It’s good advice. I certainly heard it when I was starting, twenty-five years ago. (Hand to forehead.) But it didn’t fit my life back then, and it might not fit yours. Let me tell you this: Consistency is what counts, even more than the length of your writing sessions.

I was a single woman lawyer, newly divorced, working in a small litigation firm about a 35 mile drive from home each way. We were handling cases bigger firms wouldn’t touch, which meant long hours and late nights. The internet was on the horizon, but still a ways off, so communication and research required time in the office and our law library. Laptops were just emerging – I didn’t have one – so writing, whether for the firm or myself, meant sitting at a desk. During one stretch, I was able to take Fridays off, and that’s when I wrote. The rest of the week, I might be able to jot down a few notes or read craft books and magazines, but I didn’t have the mental energy to write. On those Fridays, though, I made my coffee, went to my home office, and turned on the computer. Switched on the desk lamp. (I still have it – the one in the picture, with the green shade.) My three dogs loved spending the day on my office floor, taking a break or two for a walk. (The cat didn’t care.) But most importantly, my muse – my creative drive – always joined us. It was as if she knew that when I showed up, she needed to be ready.

We wrote an entire manuscript that way, my border collies and me, on Fridays and the occasional Saturday morning. Then we wrote a second, and a third. They didn’t get published, but they got me an agent and a good amount of editorial interest. They were my practice novels, not just because I was trying out my skills, trying on the craft, but because I was developing my writing practice.

It was that writing practice – that consistent showing up, ready to work – that eventually got me to the point of thirteen published books, with two more novels coming out this year. When I’ve let that consistency waver, the work has wobbled, and so has my confidence and sense of myself.

Merriam-Webster’s defines practice as
1 a: CARRY OUT; APPLY b: to do or perform often, customarily or habitually c: to be professionally engaged in 2 a: to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient b: to train by repeated exercises”

There you have it. Fifteen minutes a day with your lunch in hand. An hour every morning if you’re bent that way. Fridays. Whatever it is, do it “customarily, habitually” “to become proficient. Don’t go more than a week between sessions – I am not sure a muse, no matter how loyal, can keep track of every other Thursday afternoon or the first Saturday of the month. After all, they need to “perform or work at repeatedly,” just like us.

Do what you can, when you can, as often as you can. May the muse be with you.