“Narrative becomes the way you make sense of chaos. That’s how you focus the world. It’s the only reason you should ever try this writing job.”
— Dennis Lehane, American crime novelist (hat tip, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore)
“Narrative becomes the way you make sense of chaos. That’s how you focus the world. It’s the only reason you should ever try this writing job.”
— Dennis Lehane, American crime novelist (hat tip, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore)
Friends, Barnes & Noble is running a pre-order special — 25% off — Wednesday through Friday, April 20-22. Both Leslie’s PEPPERMINT BARKED (coming July 19) and Alicia’s BLIND FAITH (coming October 11) are eligible. Just click the link on the title to go directly to that book’s page on B&N.com and use the checkout code PREORDER25.
And get ready to give your future self the gift of a good book!
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.
I’ll confess, when I’m waiting for a book cover, I’m on pins and needles. Will it be anything like I imagined? Will it suit the book? Will you love it?
The last two, of course, are what count.
The cover process is truly fascinating. These days, it’s done primarily with stock photos and computer graphics, layered upon each other. The covers of my cozies contain literally dozens of images, from plates of cookies to salt and pepper shakers, antique cash registers, armoires, cats and dogs and ducks—all designed to create a sense of place that draws you in. That makes you want to shop there, eat that food, pet those critters, meet the people who live and visit there, and find out what happens between the covers.
The suspense covers are designed to draw you in as well, by creating a mood, conveying a place, and hinting at danger.
Typically, the editor asks the author to provide ideas for the cover—images from the book itself and pictures of any real places that inspired the story. For the first in a cozy series, they want a description of the shop or bakery or library—the central location. I often create a private Pinterest board of images collected while I wrote, and I share that with the designer. (Later, closer to publication, I create a new public board of images connected to the book to share with readers.)
For Bitterroot Lake, the questions came while I was still writing the book. I knew the cover needed to focus on the lodge and the lake, though I’m not sure I’d settled on the title then and wasn’t yet sure how central the lake would turn out to be. (Hard to imagine that now, isn’t it, knowing the whole story?) I sent images of historic Montana lodges, a mix of private, public, and lodges in Glacier National Park. I envisioned Anja, the Swedish servant, running down the lawn to the lake, much like she does in Sarah’s mother’s painting. I had a color palette in mind, drawn from a painting I’d seen in a local show—of a bird, if I remember right. Nothing like what you saw on the cover of the book! The process of answering the publisher’s questions about the key imagery, the mood, the lodge and the surrounding landscape, all helped me tremendously to hone my own vision of the place and strengthened the writing.
Of course, what the cover artist created is much better than what I suggested! It’s moody, both inviting and a little bit frightening. And that canoe? Well, of course there should be a canoe on the shore of a mountain lake! But there wasn’t one in the story. I added a canoe to the century of stuff Sarah and Holly find in the carriage house, put Holly and Michael in it in the day of the accident twenty-five years ago, and sent Sarah and her daughter out on the lake in the final chapter. I love that the artist could see what I hadn’t seen—but that absolutely needed to be there.
Blind Faith, on the other hand, was already written before the cover process began. I knew we needed a sense of the land, and we needed that central image of the intersection. A bit like a cross, isn’t it? I can’t say much more without spoilers, but I can tell you this cover is absolutely nothing like I’d envisioned and absolutely perfect. When I saw the draft, it took my breath away.
I hope you love it, and Lindsay and Carrie and Father Leary and Detective Brian Donovan, as much as I do. I hope this book takes you deep into the forest of possibility and asks you to make a decision, just as it asks them to do.
And don’t worry – if you’re a fan of my cozies, you haven’t missed the cover reveal for Peppermint Barked. Coming soon, I promise!
Remember, both books are available for pre-order anywhere you buy books. Indies and other bricks-and-mortar booksellers will be THRILLED to pre-order a title for you.
A fun bit of news to share: Some of you have read my Stagecoach Mary Fields short stories, all published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The third, “Coming Clean” (AHMM Jan-Feb 2021), has just been named a finalist in short fiction for the Spur Awards, given by the Western Writers of America. Here’s a list of all the finalists and winners.
The first Mary story, “All God’s Sparrows,” won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; you can listen to me read it here, on the AHMM podcast. And the second, “Miss Starr’s Goodbye,” was nominated for a Derringer award, given by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
Maybe this will “spur” me to tell more Mary stories!
Thank you, my friends, for keeping me company on this journey.
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,
Nothing like boots – or sandals or tennies – on the ground.
I’m a very placed writer, and walking possible story locations, in person or in my mind, helps spark ideas. I’m at that point in the beginnings of a new novel, and fortunately, a good chunk of it is set close by, so I can check out locations I think might be important to the story. I can see what my character sees and begin to think “if he parked his RV in this campground, he’d want to be way at the end, away from other people.” That thought helps me flesh out what I know about him and his worldview and worries. Then I look out at the patch of river and begin to imagine ways it could be part of the story. I can see where a divorced dad might meet his teenage daughter for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and get a feel for their relationship. In a book where the conflict between the haves and have-nots is an important part of the back story, I can see how the grand historic home of one man, with its views of the river and the mountains, might grate on another man, who feels he can never get ahead no matter how hard he tries. Their sons go to the same school but go home to very different worlds. How will that play out?
I say a specific spot “might be important to the story,” because I don’t know. It’s early. The characters will tell me, as we take our journey together, whether they do in fact live in this house or another one. But by taking a look at the possibilities, I’m feeding my subconscious, the key to any kind of creative work.
Grab a friend if you can. My husband scouted an RV park with me. When my BFF visited, I dragged her to a town thirty miles away for breakfast (no serious hardship), then we prowled through a historic building together, walked a city park I’d never visited, and explored an old cemetery. Her questions about the town and neighborhoods prompted me to think about my characters in new ways. She saw things I might not have seen—how the trees would have grown and changed a view from when thirty years ago when the story conflict began, for example.
We’ll talk another time about using Google Maps, Facebook photos, and other online tools to ground-truth a story. Meanwhile, lace up your walking shoes, grab your phone or camera, and walk the mean streets with your story people.
Hello, friends! You may have noticed that the Creativity Quote and Writing Wednesday took a short break, but I’m back now. I do have a request. The service I’ve used for years to distribute the blog is being discontinued shortly. I’ve got a new method in place, but can’t automatically transfer my subscriber list. If you would like to continue receiving the blog, please follow this link and resubscribe. If that doesn’t work, go to my website and scroll to the bottom, where you’ll see an icon that says FOLLOW MY BLOG and click on that. Then watch for the confirmation email. (You may get duplicate messages for a time or two, until Google completely disables its service, but not for long.)
After all that, I want to give you a particularly fun quote. It’s funny, but it’s also a really great idea! And I loved the novel it came from!
“I grinned when [Professor Cohen] answered the door—in a tuxedo jacket.
“What on earth?” I asked.
“I’m trying to get into the mind of my character, so I put on my husband’s tails.”
“Is it working?”
“I’m not sure, but it’s great fun.”
—Janet Skeslien Charles, The Paris Library
See you next week!
If you’re a member of Sisters in Crime — and if not, what are you waiting for? — you may have watched the webinar I gave in October 2020 called Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law. (Members can watch it free in the archives.) Or you might have heard me talk on the subject at the Writers’ Police Academy, Colorado Gold conference, or Flathead River Writers’ Conference. It’s an important subject and one I enjoy discussing.
But when I read the third book in a few months in which a character is arrested and immediately given Miranda warnings, I realized it might be time for a refresher. Herewith, a repeat of an article I wrote for The Writer (September 2013). (And if you want more details on using the law in your fiction, check out my guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). Pay close attention — especially to the section on Miranda warnings.
LAW & ARDOR: Writing about legal themes? An attorney identifies 10 common mistakes to avoid in your fiction (Originally published in The Writer, September 2013)
If you’re writing fiction, chances are a legal thread runs through your story. On screen or on the page, legal issues are often central to plots and backstory.
In mysteries and thrillers, past crimes may surface with present ramifications. Law enforcement officers and P.I.s need to know what’s legal and what isn’t. Amateur sleuths—the chef, gardener, or librarian—may start digging because they fear police won’t investigate or will nab the wrong suspect.
The law figures in mainstream and literary novels, too. And legal plots don’t require a crime. With a good storyteller, civil law can be gripping. Think of the possibilities in adoption (Jacquelyn Mitchard’s A Theory of Relativity; Ann Patchett’s Run), inheritance (Dickens’ Bleak House), even insurance (Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s movie based on James M. Cain’s novella).
But the law can be confusing, too. It changes constantly, and varies from state to state. Information and misinformation abound. Plus most of us, thank goodness, live happy lives without facing serious legal trouble. What follows is one lawyer-novelist’s list of common mistakes—and tips on avoiding them.
1. Using the wrong terms to identify prosecutors and courts.
On TV’s Law & Order—and I love the show—the prosecutor is the D.A. In other stories, she may be the county attorney or prosecutor, the state’s attorney, even the people’s attorney. A handle like commonwealth’s attorney might be shortened to “the prosecutor.” Does she try cases in District Court, Circuit Court, or Superior Court? If the terminology baffles you, call the court or prosecutor’s office, the state bar, or a law professor. You may even find a source to answer future questions.
2. Assuming law enforcement officers need a warrant to make an arrest.
Police don’t need a warrant to make an arrest in a public place, or in “exigent circumstances,” such as when an officer witnesses a crime or pursues a suspect. But police still need probable cause—that is, a reasonable belief, based on facts, that a particular person is responsible for a particular crime. “Mere suspicion” is not enough.
3. Confusing direct and circumstantial evidence.
Evidence is anything offered at trial to prove a fact necessary to the elements of the case—testimony, documents, or physical evidence like a gun or DNA test results. Direct evidence is evidence of a fact. Circumstantial evidence is evidence of a fact that leads to an inference or presumption.
An illustration: You tell your kids not to eat the brownies until after dinner. You see your son snatch one—direct evidence of disobedience. You don’t see your daughter touch the plate, but you spot chocolate smears around her mouth and crumbs on her shirt—circumstantial evidence.
In both civil and criminal law, circumstantial evidence may be enough to make the case. If the other side objects, the judge must rule on whether to allow (admit) it or not. The standard is relevance: Does it make facts that matter to the case more or less probable?
4. Giving every suspect a Miranda warning.
A warning is required only before custodial interrogation. In other words, only persons in custody need to be warned, and even then, only before questioning. Voluntary statements by persons not in custody or not made in response to questioning are admissible. A suspect who’s been warned may waive his rights and agree to talk. Of course, mistakes are fodder for defense lawyers—and writers.
5. Failing to distinguish between state and federal crimes.
A crime doesn’t get to be federal just because it’s important. Federal crimes are violations of federal statutes. They include many (but not all) drug and firearms offenses, kidnaping across state lines, and offenses related to securities or banking, immigration, war, terrorism, or interstate communications, or occurring on federal property. Regulatory offenses, such as pollution violations, may be federal crimes. If a crime violates state law, the state prosecutes. Some conduct may violate both state and federal laws, triggering a tug-of-war over jurisdiction. State court systems handle the majority of civil and criminal litigation—about 95%.
If your fictional crime is set in Indian Country, do your research. While the FBI investigates crimes on many reservations, as in Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels, state authorities exercise full or partial jurisdiction on others.
6. Assuming a felon can’t vote or own a gun.
Restoration of civil rights—including voting and gun ownership—after a felony conviction is complex. The Sentencing Project, a national organization promoting sentencing reform, estimates that full or partial state bans—many applicable even after a sentence has been fully served—deny the vote to 5.8 million people and have a disparate racial impact.
While federal felons are barred from gun ownership for life, state law varies widely. Some states prevent or limit gun ownership by persons convicted of violent felonies, but allow it after the sentence is served, including probation. Waiting periods may apply. Court process may be required. Some states permit ownership of hunting rifles but bar handguns.
Debate rages over the constitutional implications of voting and gun restrictions and their effect on a person’s ability to re-enter society. Does your character live in fear of an ex-con ex-husband with a gun—or worry that she can’t buy a gun to protect herself because of her own record? Is your fictional legislator’s re-election in dispute because a faulty list prevents hundreds of ex-felons from voting?
Change will continue, so check your story state’s laws.
7. Referring to guilt in a civil suit for damages.
A criminal defendant will be found guilty or not guilty (not “innocent”). A civil defendant is either liable for the plaintiff’s damages or not—the concept of guilt does not apply.
Unlike criminal guilt, civil liability is not all or nothing. In a personal injury claim, the jury may decide that the plaintiff—the party bringing suit—contributed to her injuries by her own negligence. If her negligence reaches a certain level—typically more than 50%—she may be prevented from recovering damages. Multiple defendants may share liability.
Picture a slip-and-fall: A shop owner fails to shovel her sidewalk and allows ice to form. A woman falls and breaks her arm—but she walked there daily, knew the danger, and was on her phone. A neighboring shop owner had promised to shovel, but forgot. Who’s liable, meaning who pays? The jury decides.
8. Sentencing a defendant minutes after a criminal conviction.
Sentencing is a separate proceeding, usually held after a pre-sentence investigation by a probation officer or other investigator (terminology varies). Prosecutors and defense counsel need time to review the report and make recommendations. A few weeks is typical. Sooner is possible—Casey Anthony was sentenced a few days after the verdict, but the charges she was convicted of were relatively minor and circumstances may have triggered an expedited proceeding.
Sentence may be imposed right away if a defendant enters into a plea agreement—but only after lengthy negotiations that include evaluation of all the factors that go into a pre-sentence investigation.
If you need sentence imposed quickly to get your character to prison, build in facts that let you do so. Just don’t let your fictional judge hear the verdict and impose sentence without taking a breath.
9. Allowing lawyers—or their clients—to argue with the judge, especially after she’s ruled.
Don’t do it—not if you care about your characters or their case. But if you want to irritate your fictional judge, go ahead. Your chances of success are excellent.
And don’t let your characters interrupt in court, unless you want them hauled to the slammer for contempt.
10. Introducing new evidence on appeal.
Appeals are decided strictly on the record below—meaning the evidence, including testimony, and legal arguments. Parties to an appeal may not present new witnesses or argue legal issues not previously raised. As part of its decision, though, an appellate court might order the trial court to reopen a case to consider evidence or arguments previously excluded.
In a criminal case, new evidence may surface weeks, months, even years after conviction. Other procedures exist to ask a judge to reopen a case after the appeals process has ended.
Obviously, mistakes happen in real life, which is why lawyers file motions to suppress evidence or dismiss charges (in criminal cases), motions to exclude evidence or dismiss claims (the civil terminology), and appeals. But mistakes also add to the drama and create great opportunities for tension and conflict.
Is it ever okay to make a mistake on purpose, to fool the reader? Not in my book. Exaggerate a bit for drama, sure, but deliberately building a story on a faulty premise breaks faith with the reader. As prosecutor turned novelist Marcia Clark said in a panel discussion on forensics in fiction, “The more we tell the truth, the more dramatic it is.” We don’t need to lie about the facts to tell a good story—we need to find the story they tell.
Writers who take time to check legal terms and principles will discover terrific opportunities to twist, deepen, complicate, or simplify their stories. Getting the details right can make all the difference.
Tracking Down Those Pesky Details
– The National Center for State Courts website includes directories of all state court systems with court structure charts, and of public defender systems.
–The Sentencing Project map tracks state incarceration, probation, parole, and disenfranchisement rates.
–The NRA maintains a directory of state gun laws.
– The American Bar Association charts summarize state statutes on domestic violence, stalking, protective orders, and related issues.
– For state-by-state specifics on recording conversations, see this guide from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
– The FBI maintains a directory of state and tribal sex offender registration laws.
Leslie Budewitz, a practicing lawyer, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction for Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure. Her mystery Death al Dente is set in Northwest Montana, where she lives.
Once upon a time, we put on real clothes and went out into the world. Now a good chunk of us work from home in our torn jeans (and not fashionably torn), sweats, or yoga pants. Our characters, though, are still going about their business, running a Spice Shop in Seattle or a local foods grocer in Montana, and going all kinds of places. Which means that while I can grab the nearest thing on my closet shelf, I actually have to think about what they wear.
And because I live in a small town in western Montana, I don’t get to see the full range of clothing styles I could glimpse in just an hour sitting in the window of Starbucks on 5th Avenue in Seattle or nursing a cappuccino in a hip Missoula coffee house. When I do get out of town, I’m always looking, looking, looking. Turns out city lawyers don’t dress as formally as when I was a downtown Seattle lawyer—except when they do. There’s a lot wider range of styles and outfits these days.
Both physical magazines and catalogs and websites are a great source. Of course, you have to look beyond the companies you shop from. For Erin, my 32-year-old Montana girl, I browse Title 9, Athleta, REI, and other companies with an outdoor or “activewear” style. Her mother, Francesca, dresses from the pages of Soft Surroundings. For a special event, I’ve dressed characters from J. Peterman — take a look; the catalog copy itself is pretty wild. Pepper, who runs the Spice Shop in Pike Place Market, wears black yoga pants and T-shirts with her shop apron on workdays, but I let her go bright, bright, bright away from work, and on dry days, she loves to wear a pair of petal pink Mary Janes she splurged on in Assault & Pepper.
For Bitterroot Lake (coming April 13, written as Alicia Beckman), I thought about how different the four friends who are the focus of the story are. Sarah’s quite aware that her upscale Nordstrom look is right on par in her toney Seattle neighborhood, but a little out of place in Deer Park. Janine is a baker who’s showed up in town with only her work clothes. Sarah lends her clothes, but because of the tensions in their relationship, she’s self-conscious about it. Besides, everything’s too long. Nicole — Nic — is a lawyer whose workday wardrobe isn’t too different from the casual pants and fleece jackets she wears on her spur-of-the-moment, long-distance drive to Deer Park.
Dressing the men is even trickier. Around here, for men of a certain age — like the age of the man I’m married to — dressing up means a sport coat over Levi 501s and popping the dried mud off the cowboy boots. (Wear the ones with the nonskid soles this time of year.) Daily wear for the younger men tends toward cargo pants and T-shirts, although the “active wear” influence of the ski slopes and hiking trails is strong, too.
Think carefully about how your characters dress and what their clothing conveys about them. And do tell me some of your favorite tricks and sources for dressing your story people!
Writing, like a lot of other creative work, is often described as a solo activity. But there’s a strong case to be made for collaboration, as Joshua Wolf Shenk contends in the book Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity (2014; the original hardcover was titled Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs). Shenk looks at artists and scientists working together — Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie — but also at artist and inspiration — Vincent and Theo Van Gogh — and scientists who worked and reworked their ideas in conversations with spouses, co-workers, even rivals, typically uncredited.
“So much of the creative exchange gets hidden. It happens offstage, and isn’t a part of history. Sometimes that’s due to prejudice, or ignorance, and sometimes it’s because, if things go well, you just don’t hear about the second person,” Shenk said in an interview in Vox.
For writers, think of the brainstorming sessions with a writing pal, email exchanges with an editor, even conversations with your S.O. about how to kill a character or how one character might behave in a particular situation.
Then take those ideas, spurred by an exchange, to your writing room and write them!
Join me and my partners in crime, Debbie Burke and Christine Carbo, at 3 pm Mtn time this Wednesday, Feb 24, for a lively Zoom discussion about our mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels, the writing process, and more. Our gathering is sponsored by the Buffalo Hill Terrace senior living community in Kalispell; open to the public. Zoom link
I hope you can join us for fun, secrets, and laughter with Debbie, Christine and me.
(The downside of Zoom? You’ll have to bring your own snacks. But check the back of my books for recipes!)