Monday, January 28, 2019

The View from the Other Side

Every once in a while, Marja McGraw runs out of ideas for posts, so this week I’m giving her a break and taking over. My name is Sandi Webster-Goldberg, I’m a private investigator, and taking over is something I do often.
I’m not altogether sure how Marja thought me up, but I once heard her say she originally planned on basing me on a younger version of Sally Field. Well, I showed her. Within the first chapter of the first book, I took on a personality of my own. I didn’t want to be based on anyone but myself.

I later heard her say she’d decided to base my menopausal mother on Sally, but as you can read for yourself in the books, that plan fell short of the mark, too. My mother is a one-of-a-kind. Why, she once took down a mugger while in the throes of a mood swing. Poor guy – I almost felt sorry for him.

As a P.I., I’m proud of the work I do. I do a lot of work for insurance companies, but I’ve also brought down a number of bad guys – some of them really bad.

My life is full. I have Pete, my partner and now husband, our friends Stanley and Felicity, and I should probably explain that I hired Pete not long after I opened my agency. In true fictional form, the business took off and I needed help. We’ve had our ups and downs, but overall we make a great couple.

Stanley was one of our first clients. He was being stalked, but I won’t go into that because Marja has already written a story that will explain Pete’s and my relationship with Stanley. When we met him, he was writing verses for greeting cards, but now he works for us. Stanley met Felicity when Pete and I were out of town and she stopped in to ask for help. They are the cutest, smartest and clumsiest couple I know.

I have an elderly neighbor named Dolly who owns a cat named Miss Kitty. I always feel a little silly when I refer to Miss Kitty. Dolly is like the grandmother I never knew, and she loves what I do for a living even more than her soap operas. She hasn’t been in the last couple of books much, but she’ll be back soon.

I have a dog named Bubba. He’s half wolf and half Golden retriever, and he’s, well, big. Very big. And he smiles frequently. The first time he smiled at me he was a stray and I thought he was baring his teeth at me. I almost called the dog catcher. However, it turns out that Bubba’s just a big ol’ bear-sized lovable mutt. And he can be very protective when the need arises. The latest addition to the family is a Chiwienie named Clementine, half Chihuahua and half Dachshund. She’s quite a character.


So far Marja has exposed me to a hundred-year-old family-related murder, Bubba thinking there was a ghost in the attic, a young woman being harassed by a bum, and an eight-something year old woman (P.I. in the 1940s) who wanted me to solve a cold case for her. As if that wasn’t enough, Marja brought the Bogey Man into my life. I have to admit, he was quite a character. One of my favorite actors is Humphrey Bogart and this guy was a dead ringer for Bogey. After that, Marja sent Pete and me to a ghost town where we became stranded. Actually, that was a lot of fun.

We helped my mother and stepfather renovate an old house full of mystery to be used as a Bed & Breakfast, we saved a billionaire with the help of my eccentric Aunt Martha, solved a cold case in Battle Ground, Washington, where we now own a vacation home, and we became involved in a cold case involving an old gin mill. I could go on, but I don’t want to give away any secrets.

I can’t help but wonder what Marja has up her sleeve next. I know my author is sometimes frustrated with me. She wants to go one way and I want to go the other. She’ll write a scene for me, scratch her head and rewrite the whole scene. Sometimes I’m dizzy from all the rewriting.

After all is said and done, all I can say is that I think it’s very generous of me to take over the blog this week. I hope Marja is busily writing me into another mystery as I carry her load.

Like Marja always says: Until next time, have a great week and enjoy a big chocolate bar. We do have chocolate in common.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Marja: Actually, I’m working on a Bogey Man mystery right now (my 20th book), but Sandi’s latest case will be on the drawing board soon.

Monday, January 21, 2019

How's Your Credibility?

I once asked a friend for her best tip on researching. She said, “Find someone who likes doing it and give them money.” That’s not always possible, and sometimes it takes the fun out of putting a story together, although her answer did get a chuckle out of me.

Why is research important? The answer is simple. Your credibility as an author is at stake. People read books, listen to a presentation or watch a television show and walk away believing what they’ve read, seen or heard. As a writer, you’re supposed to be an expert, right? Readers depend on you to know what you’re talking about, and that doesn’t just apply to non-fiction. Many people believe fiction, too.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories about viewers walking up to a soap opera star and slapping her because they believed what they’d watched her do in her role as a bad girl. Fiction is exactly that – fiction. So, no slapping! However, there’s generally a thread of truth somewhere in your story unless it’s total fantasy.

Let’s make up a fictional town. We’ll call it Big Buck City which is located in Northern Nevada and lies somewhere near Reno or Carson City. Here’s the information you gave in your book:

            Palm trees line the streets
            The terrain is flat, barren desert
            It almost never snows and the temperatures are mild
            You refer to Reno (or Las Vegas) as the state capitol
            You mention that casinos don’t allow smoking anymore
            There’s a house of ill repute on every corner

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. Palm trees don’t grow well in a cold climate. Northern Nevada is mountainous, and it can be very cold with fairly frequent snow. By the way, Carson City is the state capitol. Casinos may not allow smoking in their restaurants, but most casinos allow smoking in the gaming areas. At the very least, most of them have smoking sections. If you write about casinos, you’d better know about casinos. A house of ill repute on every corner? While there are such places, you won’t find them on every corner.

If you created this description in your story, you’ve just lost the readers who live in Northern Nevada. They realize you’re not familiar with their favorite place – home. When a couple from Podunk, Ohio, visits Reno, they’re not going to find anything they were expecting. You let the tourist down, too. In general, you’ve let your entire audience down.

Don’t make up facts as you go along unless one of your characters is a pathological liar, or someone’s trying to lie their way out of a fix.

Another hint? Don’t rely on one source for accuracy. The Internet is so convenient, but what you find isn’t always correct. Check out more than one site, and there are great sources at the library, too. Talk to “old timers” and locals. Talk to experts. If your protagonist discusses the weather in Colorado, you’d better know what the weather I like in Colorado.

Have any of you worked on your family genealogy? You’ve probably found names, dates, locations and stories, along with other information. Maybe you researched Great-Uncle Fred and discovered he had a fifth child the family never talked about. Hmm. This could be interesting. Why wasn’t the fifth child discussed? Did Number Five rob a bank? Run away from home when he was sixteen to become an actor? Commit a murder? (Okay, don’t forget, I am a mystery writer.)

I discovered quite by accident that I enjoy researching. It’s like solving a mystery. You follow leads to come to informed conclusions. A number of my books contain cold cases. I had to find out what things were really like during the time periods I wrote about.

Organize your information and keep a record of where and when you found it. You might need to refer back to the same source.

Do you enjoy research, and if not, how do you keep your facts straight? What are some of your favorite sources to find pertinent information for your books?

Until next week, try researching something you’ve always wondered about but you’ve never taken the time to check it out. You might be surprised at what you find.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Monday, January 14, 2019

I Wish I'd Written that Book

I enjoy writing mysteries more than anything I’ve ever done before. Initially people called it my “hobby,” and I smiled politely while trying not to voice my thoughts. However, after about the time my fifth book came out, those who knew me decided it wasn’t a hobby after all. (It’s nice to feel understood.)

However, I’m also an avid reader, or at least I was until I started writing. Now I don’t have enough time to read everything I’d like to. For purposes of this post, though, I’m going to remain a reader.

Beginning with my mother’s Honey Bunch books, and moving on to the Oz books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books, and finally real honest-to-goodness adult books, I’ve enjoyed the freedom to go places and do things vicariously through the characters and the stories.

All of that reading and all of those characters and storylines (along with a gentle push from a friend) are what prompted me to write mysteries. Some of the ideas of other writers are so unique that when I finish reading a book I sit back and wish I’d written it. As a reader, have you ever felt that way?

When To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee came out, even though I’d never given a thought to writing a novel, I read the last page and wished I’d written that book. The characters were so real to me – Atticus, Jem and Scout. The storyline reminded me of what times and people were like in the thirties. (Although I wasn’t even a sparkle in my mother’s eyes in the thirties, I’ve heard things.) And Boo Radley – oh, what a guy. I think every small town has had someone whom people talked about and who was highly misunderstood. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the book. You’ll be glad you did.

I still think about Marley & Me by John Grogan. The book made me laugh aloud, and then the story made me cry. I wished I’d written it because it was so entertaining. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t quite believe the story and ended up with two yellow Labrador Retrievers, Sugar and Murphy. Believe me, Grogan’s story hit the mark. These dogs have a bit of screwy mixed in with intelligence, and sometimes… Well, you’d have to live with a Lab to understand.

Sometimes I read one simple idea in a story – and wish I’d thought of it first. Oh,well… I do my best.

I could tell you about my books, but that would take too much time. There are now nineteen, with Number Twenty in the works. Maybe one day someone will read one of my books and say, “I wish I’d written that.” One can always hope.

Think of a book you wish you’d written, or that contained an idea you wish you’d thought of first. Maybe you’ll provide me with some new books to read.

Until next time, I hope you read a book that leaves you in awe of the story – a book that will live forever in your memory.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Monday, January 7, 2019

Rainy Sunday

 I really need an updated picture. One of these days...

It’s a dark, rainy Sunday as I write this, and it's a perfect day for snuggling up on the couch with a good mystery. Unfortunately, instead of that I’m writing a story that takes place during a major heatwave. It’s a bit difficult to write about the heat when I’m sitting at my desk, thinking I should get up and start the fireplace. I moved to Washington from Arizona, and I have to think back to what it was like during the summer in Arizona. Plus, the story takes place in Los Angeles.

Location is so important in a book. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve written enough to help the reader “visit” the location. Arizona, Washington and Los Angeles are so vastly different from each other. I can picture the location in my mind, but can the reader?

A lot of things depend on location, location, location: setting up a business, buying a home, planning a vacation, the setting for a fictional story. And when planning where a story will take place, you also have to think of regional issues such as earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, monsoon storms and snow, rain or heat. Even a volcanic eruption can be an issue, depending on where the story takes place.

Last night was quite windy here, and it was pouring rain. I’d just gone to bed when the wind picked up and the roof on the patio began lifting just enough to bang loudly when it dropped. At first I thought someone was trying to break into the house, but, surprisingly, the dogs didn’t react. I hadn’t noticed the wind when I had the television on. I couldn’t sleep and if my characters were in this situation, they wouldn’t get any sleep either. (Lucky dogs slept right through it.)

Your characters are in the middle of a thunder storm? Are there dogs or cats in the story? How do they react to the situation?

Have you ever lived through an earthquake? A hurricane? Don’t write about these things unless you have experience or a good “go to” witness to these disasters.

So it’s more than just location. It’s what the location is like if there’s an emergency. What’s possible at the location you’ve chosen for the story? There are so many details to consider when writing a story. You can research a blizzard, but if you haven’t lived through one you’re liable to get it wrong. At least talk to someone who’s lived through a blizzard, earthquake or something that could be devastating.

Of course, what if it’s just an average day and the weather is great, the air is clear and there’s a pleasant breeze? Be sure to let the reader know that’s what the day is like, but don’t tell them, show them. Let them figuratively walk in your character’s shoes. Maybe it’s nighttime and the weather is comfortable and clear. What might set this evening apart? Maybe the sound of hundreds of frogs croaking. There’s always something to remark on.

The book I’m currently working on involves some homeless people. It’s an extremely hot summer. It’s so hot out you could cook eggs on the sidewalk. In Oatman, Arizona, an historic tourist town, they actually have a contest involving cooking eggs on the sidewalk. Now that’s hot!

Right now I can look out the window and watch the rain fall. I’ve got the fireplace going and the three dogs are lying around the house, sleeping. It’s so quiet – except for the ticking of a clock. If the phone rang right now it would probably scare me out of a year’s growth. Okay, I stopped growing a long time ago, but you get the idea.

I started out talking about location, location, location, but it’s really about details, details, details. Sometimes the little things count, as long as you don’t go overboard with those details.

Now I’m chuckling. Rereading this post tells me that I’m running out of ideas. Or am I?

As a writer or as a reader, do you want those little details to enhance the story? Do you want to feel like you’re walking through a blizzard with the character in the book?

Until next time, think about where you live and the types of things that go on around you. Maybe you’re not a writer, but can you use your imagination and come up with a story about your day (in the rain, snow, or whatever)?

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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