Earlier this month, I gave a presentation to the Authors of the Flathead, my local multigenre wrriters’ group, on Building Character. The members were very kind, even when I made them write in class! I’m a big believer in celebrating accomplishments, big and small, with a moment of recognition, and so I wrapped up by congratulating everyone for being there. For showing up for themselves and their writing. Creative work is not always valued in our culture, especially if it doesn’t lead to fame or fortune, or even publication, the easy markers of success. But I firmly believe that creative work heals us. It connects us. It matters.
And I want to congratulate you, too. Take a moment to celebrate your creative accomplishments this past year. Maybe you didn’t write as many pages as you’d planned, or finish the novel. Maybe you didn’t find an agent or a publisher, or sell as many books as you’d hoped.
We all find it easy to criticize ourselves. Please, take a moment to give yourself the gift of acknowledging what you did. If nothing else, you held the intention of being creative, and that matters. Give yourself a gift to support the work in the year to come: a class, a notebook, a new paintbrush. Time. Permission to take a risk. A partnership or collaboration. A subscription to a newsletter or podcast that teaches or inspires you.
And I’ll be write — HA! — right here with you, cheering you on.
Friends, I am thrilled to celebrate the 10th birthday of Death al Dente, the first Food Lovers’ Village mystery and winner of the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, by presenting a special edition of An Unholy Death, the historical novella prequel.
An Unholy Death originally appeared in Carried to the Grave and Other Stories, the 6th Food Lovers’ Village mystery, so if you have a copy of Carried, you’ve already got this story. It’s available in paperback and ebook, for all e-readers.
(To tell the truth, the novella actually released on Tuesday, August 29, but I was so focused on finishing the 8th Spice Shop mystery, To Err is Cumin, by my September 1 deadline that I waited to let you know. The manuscript went in this morning!)
As the cover copy says: It’s 1910 and newly married Kate Murphy arrives in Jewel Bay, Montana, with her husband Paddy, proprietor of Murphy’s Mercantile, intent on building their life together in this unfamiliar place. The conditions are rough—as are some of their clientele—and get even rougher when Kate discovers the dead body of the widowed local preacher. She’s determined to keep his young daughter safe, but the task takes all the courage Kate can summon as she faces the first of many mysteries unfolding in her new home . . .
I’ve always been fascinated by Montana history and when my husband was asked to write and perform the music for a documentary, Bigfork: A Montana Story, on the history of the model for Jewel Bay, I decided to explore that history on the page. What would this rough Montana town have looked like to a new bride, fresh from Baraboo, Wisconsin? How would she have adapted? What conflicts would she walk into? What skills would she bring? Turns out her great-granddaughter Erin’s talent for sleuthing may be inherited . . .
Like Kate, my own great-grandmother grew up in Baraboo as one of four sisters in an Irish family. I borrowed their names, ancestry, and hometown, but the rest is fiction.
Readers often ask about the titles and covers. Choosing a title can be a challenge. I wrote this novella without a title, not for lack of trying. A friend reminded me that good titles often come from the language in the book. Nothing worked, until I remembered that I could add a phrase for just that purpose. That led to this, at about the midpoint, during the funeral of the minister Kate found dead in the church just days earlier.
In the front pew, Grace sitting straight-backed between her and Paddy, Kate tried to focus on the minister’s words. Tried to forget that he stood on the very spot where she had found Reverend Haugen on what the minister called “that unholy day.”
Perfect, I think. In the documentary, I spotted a picture of the church and school in about 1906. The cover artist stylized the image, creating a curved, narrow lane between them and adding trees and wildflowers. I love it.
But what makes the cover truly stand out, I think, are the mountains behind the town, done in the grand landscape traditions of the late 19th century painters Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who focused on the Rocky Mountains. Moran is best known for images of Yellowstone, Bierstadt of Yosemite, but their style translates beautifully to this area, on the edge of Glacier National Park.
I hope you enjoy the trip back in time with me. If An Unholy Death is your first visit to the Food Lovers’ Village, I hope you’ll make a return visit with the five novels. And remember, my gift to you as a newsletter subscriber is a Village short story, “The Picture of Guilt,” in which our modern heroine, Erin Murphy, and her husband Adam make an unexpected discovery while hiking and picking huckleberries in those very mountains. Sign up on my newsletter and follow the links in the Welcome letter. (I’m having a hard time updating it to mention the latest books and this short story, but the links all work!)
“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)
I’ve felt a bit at sea lately, and after Christmas, decided it might be useful to start writing morning pages again. You know the idea, I’m sure: write three pages, by hand, first thing in the morning as a form of clearing and centering before heading into the day’s work, whether it’s your creative work or something else. Julia Cameron, their primary proponent, cautions that they “aren’t meant to be art, or even writing.” They are simply a tool, useful not just for writers but for all artists and anyone looking to deepen their creative experience.
“The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims or our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. . . . By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor. . . . Morning pages will teach you that your mood doesn’t matter.
“Morning pages are meditation, a practice that brings you to your creativity and your creator God.” — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
“In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, I wrote, ‘How you feel in writing is how we will feel in reading.” To be vividly alive is to be open to everything: unrestrained, honest, brave, awake and aware.’ – Don Maass, literary agent and teacher, on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016), and all Maass’s books on the craft of writing.
Catch me this weekend at the Bigfork Art Festival, on Electric Avenue in the Village!
From the cover: When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.
Twenty-five years ago, during a celebratory weekend at historic Whitetail Lodge, Sarah McCaskill had a vision. A dream. A nightmare. When a young man was killed, Sarah’s guilt over having ignored the warning in her dreams devastated her. Her friendships with her closest friends, and her sister, fell apart as she worked to build a new life in a new city. But she never stopped loving Whitetail Lodge on the shores of Bitterroot Lake.
Now that she’s a young widow, her mother urges her to return to the lodge for healing. But when she arrives, she’s greeted by an old friend–and by news of a murder that’s clearly tied to that tragic day she’ll never forget.
And the dreams are back, too. What dangers are they warning of this time? As Sarah and her friends dig into the history of the lodge and the McCaskill family, they uncover a legacy of secrets and make a discovery that gives a chilling new meaning to the dreams. Now, they can no longer ignore the ominous portents from the past that point to a danger more present than any of them could know.
“Bitterroot Lake is a twisty, haunting thriller propelled by a delicious hint of otherworldliness. It’s a book that’s both an expert mystery and an affirmation of love and family. I was absolutely enthralled.” —Emily Carpenter, bestselling author of Burying the Honeysuckle Girls
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!
This cover is too gorgeous to make you wait for it any longer! (And of course, you know Alicia Beckman is my suspense name.)
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,