Monday, November 30, 2015

The History

 I’ve been commenting on the fact that I’m packing and moving to another state. The process has surprisingly made me think about things that relate to writing mysteries.

I’ve run across things that I’d forgotten about. Things that make up my history; things that made me. I can look at something and remember where it came from and how it became a part of me. That is, how it’s effect on me created who I am. I guess I’m kind of talking in circles, but let me explain how it relates to mysteries.

When we create a storyline for a mystery, each part has to have some kind of history. What led the perpetrator to the point of committing a crime? What caused the victim to be in a certain place at a certain time? Was there a witness? Why was the witness there? What was everyone’s motivation?

All good questions. They deserve answers. Yes, sometimes situations are truly based on coincidence, but more often there’s an underlying story.

What about the protagonist? He or she needs a history, too. These characters don’t just pop up out of thin air. Nor do we.

If you want the characters in a story to be believable, they need a background, even if it forms over a number of stories.

Sandi (of the Sandi Webster Mysteries) was a teenager when her father made some disastrous decisions – and then he died. She went from being a happy-go-lucky teen to a proponent of doing the right thing overnight. She didn’t have time for friends or boyfriends and her life changed drastically. What got her through a rough situation? A new found maturity and a sense of humor. Years later, her life is turned around again when she opens an investigative firm and takes on a partner named Pete.

Chris and Pamela Cross (of the Bogey Man Mysteries) met by chance. Chris was a mailman and Pamela was a waitress, each wanting changes in their lives. Chris is a Humphrey Bogart lookalike, which has a huge bearing on where they go on their journey. Pamela was widowed young and has a son she’s raising by herself. They have histories that come together to create two amateur sleuths and an entirely new lifestyle.

There are a few things in my own history that have inspired stories, although those things have taken twists and turns and become something other than what real life handed me. Has anyone read Bubba’s Ghost? The story is based on something that happened to me, involving a drunken bum who harassed me and my young daughter. I’m talking about a total stranger, not someone who knew me. I happened to live in the wrong house at the wrong time, and I knew it would make a good story. The characters in the story are not me and my daughter, but fictional characters who handled things differently than I did.

History. Even a drunken bum needs a background, which I provided in the story, although it’s fiction.

Not all stories are based on true life situations, and yet our characters still need to have come from somewhere where things happened to shape them and their lives. Old Murders Never Die was one of those stories and it is complete fiction. The crimes in the story happened in the late 1800s and the victims’ stories were lost over time. Enter Sandi, who discovers an abandoned ghost town and a mystery that she can’t let go of without solving it. The town and the characters have an unexpected history.

Is there some small thing that’s happened to you in real life that would be fodder for a mystery? I’m not just directing this at writers, but also at readers. We each have a unique background. We have stories we can tell in a book or when we sit and talk to a friend. Some are funny – some are not. However, a story is a story and I, for one, love to hear them.

I especially enjoy the humorous stories. Then, again, I enjoy telling them and making people laugh. The other day one of the dogs… Never mind. I’ll save that for another post.

Until next time, clean out one of your cupboards and see if you find something that triggers a memory that helped turn you into who you are.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Monday, November 23, 2015

The Bear

Fuzzy Wuzzy
Was a bear
Fuzzy Wuzzy
Had no hair
Fuzzy Wuzzy
Wasn't very fuzzy – wuz he?

I’ve been packing, packing and packing some more because I’ll be moving in less than three weeks. While I was working in the garage, I looked up and saw my bear. He’s about three feet tall, carved out of a log, and carries a fishing pole with a fish dangling from a string. The above rhyme immediately came to mind. I stopped and stared at him, wondering how many of today’s kids have ever heard the rhyme.

Is it too silly for this day and age? I hope not.

There were a lot of rhymes we recited while jumping rope, too. It struck me that I can’t remember the last time I saw a child skipping rope. Were we too innocent?

Recite the rhyme to a child and see if they laugh or simply roll their eyes at you.

I have some old nursery rhyme books from the 1920s, left over from a relative. There’s a story about a teeny tiny woman who lived in a teeny tiny house, and let me tell you, everything in the story is teeny tiny. I haven’t read it in years, so I don’t remember very much, but (I’m making this up for purposes of this post) the teeny tiny woman went to her teeny tiny kitchen where she reached up to her teeny tiny cupboard to lift out a teeny tiny cup and saucer. When I read it aloud to a child, I start to laugh after about the twentieth reference to something “teeny tiny”. I laugh so hard that tears run down my face. At the end of the story, something upsets the woman and her teeny tiny voice isn’t teeny tiny anymore, but that’s beside the point. The point being, that by the time I reach the end of the story, the child I’m reading it to is laughing uncontrollably, too.

Not every story has to have a lesson in it. Sometimes it’s just about fun. Sometimes there is a lesson, but it’s so subtle that you don’t realize you’ve learned anything for quite a while.

When I read I notice a lot of profanity in some books. As a kid, I didn’t even know what the “f-bomb” meant, much less how to use it in everyday conversation. I recall a friend telling me what it meant, and thinking back, I realize just how innocent she was. I can’t repeat her definition here, but let me tell you, she had no idea what she was talking about. Along those lines, I remember reading a Mickey Mouse book where he said, “Darn!” Uh, I asked my mother if they were allowed to cuss in children’s books. Imagine the conversation if I’d read a book that had the “f-bomb” in it. Talk about innocent! By the way, my mother laughed over that one.

Is there anything wrong with innocence? Not at all. I wish we had more of it these days. Is there anything wrong with writing a clean story? I mean, even a murder mystery can have some good, clean fun in it. That sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? However, it’s true.

Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
All fall down!

With everything that’s going on in the world today, we need something that can take us away from it all, even if for just a moment. Maybe that’s why I tend to lean toward books with humor in them. I realize there are old rhymes supposedly based on ugliness, but as a child neither me nor my friends had any idea that Ring Around the Rosie had to do with the plague. I’m still not sure that’s true, by the way.

So think about Fuzzy Wuzzy or The Teeny Tiny Woman for a few minutes. You might find yourself smiling when you least expect it.

Your thoughts on innocence and/or reality are more than welcome. I honestly don’t live in a dream world, although sometimes it’s tempting.

Now this teeny tiny woman is going to get back to packing her teeny tiny boxes in her teeny tiny house before storing them in her teeny tiny garage.

I lied. My garage is huge and so is the pile of boxes.

Until next week, don't even think about moving unless you've got lots of energy. And, HAPPY THANKSGIVING! 

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Looking for a good book? You might try What Are the Odds – A Sandi Webster Mystery by Marja McGraw.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mood, Food and Music

Writing and reading have taught me a lot of things about myself that I hadn’t thought about.

One of them is that I’m somewhat suggestible. I’m even open to suggestion from myself. Who knew? I wrote a scene in Old Murders Never Die that involved chocolate. I couldn’t finish the scene until I opened a chocolate candy and ate it. I had to let it melt in my mouth, and I had to really think about the taste and how it made me feel. I even studied the color. I tried to tell myself it was all in the name of research, but truth be told, I simply had to have chocolate. I felt better when one of the women who critiques my work told me she had to have chocolate after reading the scene. By the way, the chocolate lifted my mood and brought a smile to my lips.

I read a book not long ago with some comments about popcorn. Do I even need to share that my next taste treat was buttered popcorn?

The Bogey Man Mysteries involve some slang words, phrases and references to music from the 1940s. So what do I do? I turn on forties music when I’m writing a Bogey book. I call it mood music and, again, research, but the fact is that I happen to enjoy it. I grew up in a household where my mother listened to forties music, and she hummed it to herself, too. I can remember my mother singing Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Poo) to me when I was a child. That’s not a reflection on my age, although it came out in 1939. Granted, I’m not twenty-five anymore, but I’m not that old. Forget it. You can hear that song and plenty of forties music on YouTube.

But I digress. So, I’ve got mood music and mood food. How much more is there? Fortunately, not much. How about mood pictures? When I’m writing a scene and I want to figure out how a character might react, I try to picture it in my mind. I want to “see” the character’s facial expression, how he or she might use their hands, whether or not they step back in fear, or step forward defiantly. Does the character nervously play with their napkin while they’re talking at a restaurant, or does this person systematically rip it to shreds? What are their movements and how does that relay their state of mind to the reader?

Of course, watching other people (as I’ve mentioned before) can be very enlightening. If I keep talking about that, at some point people will begin to avoid me. “Run for the hills! Here comes Marja, and she’s watching us again.”

As an author, have you ever thought about how much your writing might influence your audience? As a reader, do you find that you have a craving for some kind of food while you’re reading, or does your mood suddenly take a turn you didn’t expect?

While you’re contemplating that, I’m going in search of chocolate. I won’t have to look far, believe me.

Until next time, turn on some good music, find a chocolate bar (to be followed by popcorn), and either sit back with a good book, a good movie, or just spend some time daydreaming.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Monday, November 9, 2015

Focusing on Simpler Times

Since this post will be up all week, I'd like to start by saying Thank You to All Veterans. You're very special people and Thank You just doesn't seem like enough. Thinking of you all!
~ * ~

When I started writing the Sandi Webster series, I had no intention of putting any type of focus on old movies or anything vintage. It just happened, and I’m not exactly sure how or why. Sandi is in her thirties and doesn’t pay much attention to history until it (figuratively speaking) slaps her in the face. She does have a passion for vintage movies though, because she grew up watching them with her mother. However, vintage is many times an acquired taste, and whether she meant to or not, Sandi seems to have developed that taste.

She enjoys not only older movies, but she’s found she likes older people, too. Although I have to admit that she wasn’t given much choice about senior citizens. For some odd reason they just seem to flock to her, starting with her senior neighbor, Dolly. At one point Sandi asked herself if her lot in life is to spend time with seniors and dogs (because at that point Bubba, the half wolf/half Golden retriever, has made his appearance in the stories).

So, knowing that little bit about Sandi, let me return to the subject of vintage movies. Why would Sandi enjoy those over current films? Because in her mind they represent a slower time, a time of more innocence and romance, and a sense of patriotism and camaraderie. Those certainly aren’t bad things, but there must be more to it than that. Right? I tried to walk in Sandi’s shoes, or more to the point, to see things through her eyes, because Sandi really isn’t based on me. She’s her own fictional person. Okay, maybe she’s a little like me in a few of her interests (like chocolate), but not much.

Sandi is a woman who stands on the high side of naiveté, and she doesn’t always “get” what goes on in today’s world. She had to grow up too fast and join the working world. She never had the opportunity to be a typical teenager. Therefore, she doesn’t follow the crowd, but she does what suits her. She can be humorous, but she tends to take a stand on what’s right and what’s wrong. She’s sometimes opinionated and not politically correct. She expects others to be honest, as she is. She’s frequently frustrated when things don’t go the way she believes they should.

Consequently, vintage movies take her away from real life for a brief span of time. Maybe Sandi was born in the wrong era. She forgets that although things were simpler when these movies were made, they were complicated at the same time. She deals with older men and women who lived through World War II and Viet Nam, the Korean Conflict and other hard times. Murders and other crimes occurred in the time periods she so admires, just as they do today, but somehow it seems different to her.

In the process of doing research, I went through many old newspapers. Some of the crimes were horrendous, but I think Sandi is right in believing that everyday life in the thirties and forties was simpler in a lot of ways. Maybe one day I’ll write a blog about the ways that were more difficult, but not today.

Sandi may live in a dream world to some extent, but even so, her feet are firmly planted in today. She learns and moves on, and she’s a survivor – and fate continues to hand her vintage crimes from time to time.

Do you believe that things used to be simpler? Yes, they were more difficult in some ways, but overall, weren’t they slower and easier in their own way?

Until next time, wishing you a week of reflection about things both past and present.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
CLICK HERE for a quick trip to

If you enjoyed learning a little more about Sandi Webster, you might give this series a try.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Pea Brain Moments

I’ve been writing blogs since 2010, and figured that one day I’d run out of topics to talk about. I’ve come close a number of times. Suddenly something will creep into my little pea brain and I’m on the case again.

I apologize for missing the past few weeks, but life has been busier than I expected. I’ve mentioned that my house was for sale. It sold. My daughter has been looking for a house in Washington state, where I’m moving, and she found just the right house – within ten days of mine selling! The past few weeks have involved reviewing paperwork, packing, signing paperwork, packing, finagling finances, packing, sorting things into “toss” and “keep” piles, packing – you name it.

Hmm. I wonder what any of this could have to do with writing fiction. Ah, I’ve got it. Use real life experience to write fiction.

Let’s say your character is trying to solve a murder, catch a thief, find a missing person, or any number of issues. Here’s the rub. Your character has put his or her house up for sale. Just as things heat up in an investigation, a buyer makes an offer on the house. The buyer wants all of the character’s attention, understandably, and they want concessions or changes if they’re to buy the house. (Thankfully, this doesn’t describe my buyers. They’re kind-hearted and love the house.)

What’s a character to do? Drop the case being worked on to take care of the buyers? Tell the buyers to get lost? Juggle the case and the sale of the house? Each individual author would have to figure it out to their satisfaction and run with it.

Let’s go a step farther. The character is sorting and packing, and he or she runs into a mystery in the house. Do they sell the house and forget the mystery? Can the mystery be solved before the buyers take over the house? If it’s not solved, would the mystery have a direct effect on the buyer? All good questions, and like a good mystery, they have to be answered and a solution has to take place.

What about the house your character is buying? As he or she moves in, they might find something the previous owner missed. Another mystery blooms.

My dogs, Sugar and Murphy, understand that something big is going on. They can’t figure out what it is, but they’re so spun out that they don’t know if they’re coming or going. I have a feeling that moving day is going to be one long remembered. Pets can add an unusual element to a mystery and make things even more hectic than they already are.

Interestingly, I’ve given myself a few ideas just by writing this post. I’ll have to take notes and think about a new story idea.

I’ve had to set my current Work in Progress aside, but I hope to complete it after I get moved and settled in. However, the book after that is beginning to take shape. It just might… No, I’ll surprise readers. If it all works out, it will be a bit of a surprise.

I haven’t written anything since May, but I have a feeling that’s about to change. Someone commented that this particular post sounds a bit disjointed, but so is my life at the moment. Oh well…

Until next time, think of something goofy that’s taken place in your life, just for laughs. I think that’s what I’ll do. I could use a good laugh. How about you? Now back to the packing boxes.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website (which is in dire need of updating)
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Ain’t life grand? You betcha! It’s all about perspective.