Monday, April 20, 2015

An Interview with Caroline Stellings

Author extraordinaire . . .

I became acquainted with Caroline Stellings through a review I wrote of her book, The Manager, an engrossing tale about boxing with quirky, captivating characters. You can read the review at The Children's Book Review HERE .  The Children's Book Review is an award winning, online, book review site endorsed last year by the Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association.  
          The Manager, published by Cape Breton University Press in 2013, is a young adult novel that won the Hamilton Literary Award for Fiction.  Carolyn Stellings' middle-grade novel The Contest (published in the USA by Seventh Generation) won the ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal in 2010. Her teen mystery, The Scratch on the Ming Vase -- which I'm reading right now and loving -- was published by Second Story Press and was included in the Canadian Children's Book CenCentre's 2013 Spring edition of  Best Books for Kids and Teens . She also writes and illustrates picture books.

Humor and boxing . . .

Anne of Green Gables,
look out!

First in an exciting mystery
series . . .




It’s my pleasure to have this award-winning author as my interview guest today. I’ll get right to it:


EV: Have you always been interested in writing? When did you first get into it seriously?
CS: Well, it was nearly 20 years ago, and I was in a PhD program at McMaster University, but stumbled upon a book about the life of the famous illustrator from Vermont, Tasha Tudor. She, of course, has done numerous stories about her corgies, and I decided then and there to quit the academics and write books about my dogs, which have always been Schipperkes. These are little black sailing dogs from Belgium, and very smart. First, though, I had to learn how to do watercolors.

EV: You write both YA fiction and picture books. Do you favor one of them over the other, or do you enjoy them equally?
CS: I love the picture books because they feature animal characters, not only my Schipperkes, but I have also done a series of mice books, and recently, my book about a fortune-telling cat, Gypsy’s Fortune (published by Peanut Butter Press) was chosen as a Best Bet in Canada, one of the top ten picture books of the year. I think everyone liked the traditional fortune cookie sayings! Novels are more difficult, but I have enjoyed doing a mystery series because I am a big fan of Nancy Drew.

EV: Do you approach the two genres differently? If so, what are some special challenges of each?
CS: The biggest challenge with the picture books, for me, is the art. I was not lucky enough to be born with artistic talent; in fact, it took me years to learn to paint. With the novels, the challenges come at that stage when the publisher assigns an editor. She then goes over the book piece by piece, and there is a lot of re-writing to do. 
          With The Secret of the Golden Flowerthe second book in my Nicki Haddon mystery series, my wonderful editor really worked hard to get it right. Nicki, the main character, is a female Chinese James Bond, and anytime a book has a number of clues, etc. the editing can take almost as much time as writing the book in the first place.

EV: Do you have any favorites among the books you’ve written?
CS: My two Skippers books, Skippers at Cape Spear and Skippers Save the Stone because they are about my dogs.

EV: Can you describe your writing process? Do you plot ahead of time? Become haunted by a theme or idea? Start with a character and then see where that leads?
CS: It usually takes me a few months to decide on my next project. Those are the months when my house is the cleanest, because I find it easier to wash floors than face the blank page. Once an idea hits, then my house isn’t so clean, because I can’t tear myself away from the computer.
         I always seem to know what my ending will be, and then I sketch out a basic plot, and a few sentences for each chapter. This inevitably changes, of course, once the characters start developing minds of their own and bossing me around.
         Sometimes, a book requires research. With The Manager I had to learn about boxing. Even though the book is a comedy, and boxing is just in the background, I still had to know it, right down to the last jab.

EV: The research really showed. I felt the world of boxing come alive when I read it. What was your inspiration for The Manager?
CS: One hot summer night, when I couldn’t sleep, I watched a movie called The Station Agent starring Peter Dinklage, an achondroplastic dwarf, and a fantastic actor. I fell in love with him, and decided I had to write a YA novel with a dwarf character. I wound up with a female lead, but never stopped thinking about that film. Nothing much happens in that film, but thanks to the superb actors, it haunts you for a long time.

EV: What were some of your favorite books while growing up?
CS; The Wind in the Willows was my favorite illustrated book, and then Nancy Drew when I was a bit older. Later, of course, it was Tasha Tudor’s books, and Corgiville Fair is a masterpiece.

EV: What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
CS: I keep this piece of advice on a sticky note on the front of my computer at all times: SOMEONE MUST WANT SOMETHING ON EVERY PAGE. 

EV: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
CS: 1.) Don’t invent a book, experience a book and then write it.  2.) Don’t tell the reader anything; make the reader feel everything instead.

EV: What are you working on now, or can you say?
CS: I am starting a western, set in 1857 Utah Territory. Because I must learn the time period, speech, clothing, etc. I am taking longer than usual with the preparatory stages, but enjoying it. And I hope to begin editing a novel I have written about Janis Joplin called Saskatoon Blues. She came to Canada just before she died in 1970 to ride the Festival Express, and when the musicians aboard the train ran out of liquor, they made an unscheduled stop in Saskatchewan. That is where my story begins!  There‘s only one problem with writing about Janis Joplin – she steals every scene she is in!

EV: Ah . . . Janis Joplin. I can believe she would. When oldies-but-goodies come on my car's radio, she outshines all the other singers the DJ plays.

Caroline. It’s been such a pleasure to learn more about you and your work. Thank you for sharing all this.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth!

EV: Readers can find more about Caroline Stellings and her books at:





Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Student Art Show - At Last




          I promised pictures of my students' art exhibit, and here they finally are. The exhibit went up March 14th, and it's coming down tomorrow so that I can pass back the art pieces Thursday (our last class this year.) The art club is one of the great joys of my life, and I am especially grateful to the South Natomas Community Center on Truxel (Sacramento) for supporting these classes, and to University Art Store on J and 26th Streets for holding the exhibit this year. We had a little reception on the opening day (punch and cookies) and whole families turned out to see it. The students are normally 8-to-12-year-olds, but this year I had one 7-year-old and two 13-year-olds.    
          Enjoy: (I've only named the artists - all others are "sib", "sis", parent, etc.)

Danielle, Edgar & their father

Claire (center), mother & grandm.

Karla (center) with sib & friend

Yaritza (right) w. mother & sibs.

Antonio (2nd fr.  left) w. parents & sibs.



Kailee (right),  mother & sis

Maya (in red), Ella ( in pink), parents 

Brennan and mother

Angeline (center), parents, sibs,
and grandmother

Savannah (center), mother (right), and
Emily (left) 
Miranda and mother

Madison (2nd from right) and mother
(next to her), grandmother & sib.

Kiley and mother

Ian (left), sis, and father.
(Older sis, Kate, artist, was absent)
Erica (in red), Vanessa (in front of her),
mother (right) grandmother (left) and
youngest sister.
Kiley (left), Emma, (middle),
and Madison (right)


Alyssa and father

Reina (right) sisters and mother

And that's it -- for another year.
I hope you enjoyed
meeting them and
seeing their work.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Police Procedure & Investigation - A Must-Read Handbook for Mystery Writers


This book is part of the
Writer's Digest Howdunit
Series.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve joined Sisters in Crime and the local chapter, Capitol Crimes. The local chapter meets monthly, and each month guest speakers share their expertise in either writing mysteries or being connected in some way to concerns of the mystery writer. One such concern is always whether a writer is presenting crime scenes or police procedures that are accurate. Last month we were fortunate to have Lee Lofland, the author of Police Procedure & Investigation, as our guest speaker, and he addressed those very concerns. 

Lee Lofland is a former police detective, and the bad news is that much of what you see on your favorite crime show is misleading and/or inaccurate. His book, on the other hand, is a very thorough coverage of everything an author would want to ask their local police department. Blurbs by best-selling mystery writers (including two of my favorites, Rhys Bowen and Hallie Ephron) give his book high praise, and I was pleased to find that the writing – entertaining and sobering by turns – is always a good read. He presents facts that you really want to know in a way that don’t make your eyes glaze over. A few examples:
The difference between police officers and detectives; how they’re trained; what they do.  
Arrest and search procedures.
The differences between homicide, murder, and manslaughter.
The difference between a crime scene and the scene of the crime.
DNA and fingerprinting
What can send you to prison and what can send you to jail.
A section on different drugs and the effects of each one.
Differences in weapons (with photos) and how they work

The book’s appendices include a glossary of terms, police 10 codes, a drug quantity table, and a federal sentencing table. It isn’t necessary to read this book straight through, chapter by chapter. There’s a thorough index that helps when you just want to look up something useful at that moment in your writing, along with good visual aids (charts, diagrams, photos of tools, etc.) throughout the book. This is a must read for any mystery writer who wants their police procedural scenes to ring with accuracy.

Lee also shared with us the Writers’ Police Academy, held in August in Appleton, Wisconsin. Yes, there really is such a thing. You can register now and have hands on experiences that will enhance your scenes. For more information about what is covered, check out their website HERE  .

Lee’s book is available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon HERE .

You can contact the Lee Lowland at his website, The Graveyard Shift, HERE, and learn even more about police work to enrich your mysteries from his frequent blog posts.  
The author and friendly officer.

A must have book.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Samuel Craddock Mystery Series

Book Three in the series
I’m always looking for new mystery authors. (New to me, that is. Some of my discoveries have actually been publishing for awhile before I’ve discovered their books.) Last spring, when I attended a panel to listen to four mystery authors talk about their writing, one of the authors was Terry Shames. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to get hooked on her Samuel Craddock series, based in a fictional small Texas town called Jarrett Creek.

I started with book one, A Killing at Cotton Hill, because I like to see how an author jump starts their series. I liked it so much that next I had to read The Last Death of Jack Harbin. I’ve just finished her third in the series, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek (shown here), and I’m already looking forward to her fourth, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, which comes out next month. But you don’t really have to read them in order to enjoy them. Each story is complete in itself and the author deftly slips in back story and characters' gossip and memories so that you feel like you know these people right away.

The main character, Samuel Craddock, a retired police chief, is a widower who lives on a small acreage at the edge of town, and has a kindly affection for his cows. He grew up in Jarrett Creek, but developed a taste for fine art through his deceased wife. As a result, he has an  enviable art collection on his walls, a collection fraught with memory, since he and his wife purchased many of the paintings together.
Craddock is a an affable sleuth, full of homegrown wisdom and sterling character virtues. He can be firm when he needs to be, and while his manner is encouraging and disarming as he makes his enquiries, he doesn’t miss a thing. He often reflects on the other characters' lives, the locals he grew up with. His voice is so authentic, I can almost hear him when I read his narrative (which is in present tense, a tense that works very well in these mysteries).
The cluster of characters Samuel deals with are also three dimensional, with voices of their own, each one a memorable personality. To name a few: Loretta, Craddock’s neighbor and friend who brings him baked goods and gossip almost daily (and tries to pry out of him facts about the current case). Jenny, a lawyer and a good friend with whom Craddock dines out occasionally -- solely for companionship, as he is still grieving his wife.
And, of course, the current police chief, Rodell Skinner: self-important, lazy, spending more time at the bar than the police station. Because of Skinner’s alcohol problems, the townspeople have more confidence in Craddock than in him. Consequently, Samuel is the one they turn to when something goes wrong. In Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, Skinner’s drying out, so once again Craddock has to solve the case.

The series is set in Jarrett Creek, a marvelously drawn small town with just the beginnings of suburbs. A few farms outside the town. A main street with family businesses. The local high school. The town hall. The café in town, called, appropriately, Town Café. The bank. The various churches. The town jail. I leave these books feeling I know this place. It feels familiar, as if I’ve been there personally, even though the place is a pure work of fiction.


Best of all, these plots are true puzzle mysteries, and Shames weaves the threads of clues back and forth with expertise. As Craddock ruminates on facts he unearths while interviewing people connected to the case, each person becomes a believable suspect until the very end. And the ending is always satisfying, evoking that combined response: “Huh? Oh. Of Course!”

I’ve posted the book cover of Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, but you can find all of her books on Amazon HERE   

Her Website is  http://www.terryshames.com . If you hurry over and subscribe to her newsletter before Apri1 1, you have a chance to win a  copy of A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge.

You can also visit Terry Shames on Facebook HERE and follow her on Twitter HERE

Terry Shames

Win a copy of this.








Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Mystery You Can't Put Down



I love a good mystery. So when Catriona McPherson -- current President of Sisters-in-Crime at the national level -- was speaker at the local chapter (Capitol Crimes), I was delighted. I was already hooked on her Dandy Gilver series, featuring an aristocratic sleuth in 1920s Scotland.  

But it’s one of McPherson’s stand alone contemporary mysteries, that recently grabbed me: As  She Left It is a layered mystery that keeps unfolding in new surprises, just when you think you’ve figured it out.

In As She Left It, Opal Jones left her alcoholic mother when she was twelve to live with her father and step-family in Whitby. After her mother’s death, Opal finds the old home --  one half of a cottage on Mote Street in Leeds -- is now hers, and she moves back.

At first it seems the old neighborhood really is “as she left it” thirteen years ago. The Mote Street Boys in the corner house still play their gigs. Opal used to take trumpet lessons from one of them, Fishbo, who is so happy she's come back.

But Margaret Reid’s three-year-old grandson, Craig, disappeared ten years ago, on a Saturday, and the neighborhood has never recovered. And in the crooked foot posts of a bed delivered from an antique store, Opal finds secret messages that hint of a little girl's  abuse many years ago.

When Opal sets herself to solve these two mysteries, she uncovers only more: Someone was paying the house bills after Opal’s mother died. Who? And why? Mrs. Pickess, the neighborhood gossip, provided brandy in large quantities to Opal’s alcoholic mother through the years. Why? On some nights, Opal hears a man crying in the other, rented half of the house. Who is he? What secret is Fishbo, her beloved old music teacher, hiding? And why does it start looking like little Craig disappeared on a Friday instead of a Saturday?

I was mesmerized by both the brilliant plot and the lovely writing. The characters, some of the most endearing you’ll meet in a mystery, are three dimensional. Opal is unforgettable, by turns brave and nervous, gullible and cynical, bitter and hopeful, and thoroughly believable. 

And a picture in her head, the little lost boy and the little girl -- who sounded pretty lost to Opal -- had joined hands and were walking away into darkness, maybe going to be lost forever, unless Opal followed them and brought them home.

As She Left It -- winner of the 2014 Anthony Award for best paperback original -- is the kind of mystery you read more than once.

To learn more about McPherson's books, see her Amazon page HERE 
or visit her website HERE
You can also contact her on Facebook HERE
And on Twitter HERE

What kind of mysteries do you prefer? Series or stand alone? Cozies or psychological? 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mysteries Prevail Today

The long silence since my Christmas
posting was due to the exciting news that my middle grade mystery, Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, will be published in June by MX Publishing. I was busy with formatting and editing issues to get it ready. (MX Publishing specializes in Sherlock related books, so Sherlock fans can go HERE to see a wonderful selection.) You can also read more about my book  next  door on my Victorian Scribbles blog HERE:

Not surprisingly, I have been reading a lot of mysteries both for young people and for adults. I recently joined Capitol Crimes, the local chapter of Sisters-in-Crime, since I'm currently working on a cosy mystery for adults. I was invited there by a friend, and it's her book I want to talk about today: Flint House, by Kathleen L. Asay, published by Bridle Path Press.

Flint House is a mystery, in fact a bundle of mysteries revolving
around what happens when disparate lives intersect over what should be a tragic event and stir up past events each character would like to forget.

Liz Cane, a cynical journalist with The Sacramentan, goes for an interview with Maisie Flint, the unpleasant owner of Flint House, a Victorian landmark in town. At one point, Maisie interrupts the interview to check on something upstairs. A few minutes later she tumbles down the stairs and dies.

Did she trip? Or was she pushed?

The tenants of Flint House are life's strays, hiding out from life in this rickety, shabby old Victorian. One mysterious tenant is called The Princess. No one knows her real name, but all the tenants seem to adore her, whereas none of them were especially fond of Maisie. The tenants also face eviction once Maisie's distant relative shows up to claim the house. The Princess claims to have a solution that will save Flint House. Then she is found in an alley, beaten nearly to death.

A random attack by a stranger? Or was she attacked by someone who knew her?

Despite herself, Liz gets drawn into their lives. She finds herself pursuing the story, partly as hard-bitten reporter, and partly because she cares about this motley collection of people who have become a family to each other. She's also obsessed with solving the mystery of The Princess's real identity.

I know it's almost a cliche these days to say "I couldn't put the book down," but I couldn't.  It was an engrossing read, and the characters are memorable. Despite the events I've mentioned, it's also a heartwarming read. I highly recommend it.

And no spoilers here. You will have to read the book to answer the questions raised above.

You can buy the book HERE: and HERE:

You contact the author at her website HERE:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A CHRISTMAS MOMENT WHEN PEACE PREVAILED


German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment pose with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 'No Man's Land' on the Western Front, in December 2014. Photo is in Public Domain
Taken from an article
  HERE 





Twice, now, I’ve blogged at this time of year about Joyeux Noel, a 2005 film that was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film. The individual stories highlighted were fictitious, but the overall story is based on a true happening on a Christmas Eve in 1914, in the theater of war: Scottish, French, and German troops agreed to a cease fire and put down their weapons to celebrate Christmas Eve, even warning each other of planned shellings the next day and offering refuge in each other's trenches when the shellings occurred.

For all three military groups, the only thing that saved troops from being tried for treason was the fact that 200 or so in each case would have to be tried. Instead, all the participants were transferred to other fronts to make sure it wouldn't happen again. It was a remarkable film, and a story I won't forget.

I was reminded of it again when the Sacramento Bee published an article in Saturday’s paper about this phenomenon, a phenomenon that occurred in several places across Belgium and across the Western Front.

In Flanders Field, the site of John McCrae’s famous poem comparing the blood of slain British warriors to red poppies, German soldiers began playing music familiar to both German and British soldiers. Soon an informal truce was struck. Troops visited each other, gave each other food and even small gifts. Some played games. For a little while, Peace broke out. And then, as in the movie above, army generals made sure it would not happen again. In the following war years, at Christmastime they stepped up the fighting to ensure no one would even think of a truce.


So here it is again, the New Year approaching, and the Christmas message hovering still. 

Best wishes for the coming year, and for a time of peace, when people can forgive the atrocities of war and unite again in their common humanity.