Beginning June 2022, I will post guests on Mondays only. Thursdays will be open for my posts.
My blog is a fun and invaluable learning tool for me. Since I started hosting authors, I’ve posted twice a week, Monday and Thursday. Putting it all together takes more time than I ever imagined. It’s been almost impossible for me to post material I want to share.
I recently wrote a post about Lucia Berlin and her wonderful novel A Manual for Cleaning Women. I didn’t have an opening until four months out.
This change will give me more time for my work. Recently A Tale of Robbers and Cops came back from my developmental editor. Believe me; I need lots of time to clean it up.
Take Care & Stay Safe
Yôotva – Thank You
Susan began writing this cozy/traditional mystery series shortly after she retired in 2011 from a forty-four-year career in high school and college teaching. she’d written a memoir about her four decades in the classroom, but longed to write her favorite genre, mysteries.
The legacy of a decade-old murder trial plunges Grace Kimball and her town of Endurance into poisons, poppets, and an unforgiving past. The Witch’s Child (Endurance Mystery Four)
All the novels in this series take place in the small, Midwest town of Endurance. All celebrate the strength of women and the unrelenting hold of the past. Every other book in this series has a definite birth story, but not The Witch’s Child. It simply came to me, possibly a reflection of the chaos in our current world. People often ask me where I find subjects for my mysteries, so here are the answers.
Three May Keep a Secret was my first mystery. Grace Kimball, my protagonist, is a recently retired high school English teacher, and her first three mysteries bear titles from Benjamin Franklin’s proverbs. (She loved teaching American Literature.) But Grace had a horrible event in her past, one she hasn’t been able to forget. The idea for that event came to me from the death of a friend in college; she was a year behind me, and she died in a house fire while living on the outskirts of our college campus. This tragedy stayed in my memory, and I used it forty years later because no one in my life had died a violent death. Her roommates escaped this fire. I wondered, “What if?” I thought if Grace escaped such a fire, but her roommates didn’t, she’d have a past that shaped her fears and her guilt. This first book begins with an arson murder. It also introduces beautiful, biracial, brainy detective TJ Sweeney, one of Grace’s past students. They work together throughout the series.
The idea for my e-book novella, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, came from a story my stepmother told me about racial discrimination in a place where she worked in the 1930s. It’s a story TJ’s mother tells her daughter in the book. The locket is the key to a crime from the 1940s, a crime TJ must solve and a victim she must identify long before DNA registers.
Marry in Haste was a challenge. I wanted to see if I could write two plots a hundred years apart and connect two women who lived in a Victorian mansion. I lived on the first floor of this house when I began teaching in 1968. It had an amazing history, was built in the mid-1800s, and included a ballroom on its top floor. The two fictional women share a terrible secret, and Grace hopes to learn lessons from the past to solve a murder in the present. The house I lived in plays an integral part in the story and researching its past was such fun.
Death Takes No Bribes sends Grace back to the high school where she taught. The principal has been murdered, and she helps TJ sort through a group of faculty members she taught with for many years. What could the motive be? He was a well-liked administrator. How could one of her former colleagues have perpetrated such a horrible crime? Obviously, this story came from the years I spent teaching among a collection of interesting, often unique, faculty members.
Which brings us to The Witch’s Child. Not a clue why this popped into my head. In all the stories, Grace comes to the aid of former students. The Witch’s Child is in the same vein. A former student, Fiona Mackenzie, returns to bury her mother, a self-proclaimed witch who died in prison after causing the deaths [and a sensational trial] of a woman and unborn child in Endurance. Soon after Fiona’s return, the judge from the trial is murdered, and suspicion points to Fiona, the witch’s child. There are certainly other suspects, and if we add vicious whispers and malicious rumors in the local coffee houses, pushy reporters looking for a story, and clashing opinions on social media, the witch’s brew is ready. As Grace predicts in the first chapter, “Fiona Mackenzie in Endurance could only add gasoline to a fire that had burned down to embers over the years. But those embers might still be smoldering.”
I’ve published all four novels in this series, plus the novella, although the first two had a traditional publisher. Harlequin Worldwide Mystery republished the three novels in a mass-market paperback, and they are planning to publish the fourth one.I wrote a standalone mystery, A Death at Tippitt Pond.
I’m beginning a three-book contract with Level Best Books for a whole new series. The first book, Death in a Pale Hue, will be out June 8, and it concerns an art center in a small town. The protagonist, artist Jill Madison, returns home from Chicago to be executive director of an art center honoring her world-famous sculptor mother. Things are not what they seem. Let’s just say this story gives new meaning to the warning, “Don’t go down to the basement.”
I’ll continue the Endurance series also, hoping to write the fifth book and publish it in the fall. This means, of course, I must think about a new subject. Any ideas out there?
My website is at https://susanvankirk.com
You can buy my books at Amazon https://amzn.to/2GSYifZ
Lynn-Steven Johanson is an award-winning playwright and novelist living in Illinois. His mystery novels, Rose’s Thorn and Havana Brown, are published by Level Best Books. His next mystery, Corrupted Souls, will be published in 2022. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is retired from Western Illinois University.
Havana Brown, a prequel to my first novel, Rose’s Thorn, was the 2021 winner of a Royal Dragonfly Book Award for mysteries.
“Homicide detective Joe Erickson returns, this time obsessive as ever when he is pitted against a serial killer as methodical as Dexter and as cold as a winter breeze in Chicago. Fans of thrillers will feel Joe’s every frustration and relish his small triumphs, but they won’t deny author Lynn-Steven Johanson’s talent. Havana Brown has twists and turns, crisp dialog, and introduces readers to a sinister, terrifying, and unforgettable killer.” —Gabriel Valjan, Agatha and Anthony-nominated author of The Naming Game.
My third book in the Joe Erickson Mystery Series, Corrupted Souls, is due to be published this spring.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Because Rose’s Thorn was based on a screenplay I had written about ten years previously, the adaptation only took about six months. Most of the dialogue was already there. But I had to teach myself to write narration. Fortunately, my wife helped me with that. Being a former English teacher and an avid novel reader, she was able to assist me with my narrative writing. She still acts as my editor. Once I complete a chapter, she reads it and suggests fixes, and points out things that I missed. She’s nice about it and doesn’t use red ink!
How long to get it published? That took a while because once Rose’s Thorn had gone through numerous drafts and I was satisfied it was in good shape; I started to send out queries to agents. For over a year, after reaching out to forty agents, getting ignored by half, and receiving thanks-but-no-thanks messages from the other half, I began to approach publishers who were accepting solicitations from authors. Level Best Books requested the entire manuscript, and they eventually offered me a three-book contract. The entire process from the first email to an agent to the contract offer was two years. It goes to prove it pays to be tenacious.
How do you come up with character names? My main character, Chicago Detective Joe Erickson, is named for my maternal grandfather, who died eight years before I was born. It’s a good, strong Midwestern name. His romantic partner, Destiny Alexander, a criminal profiler, has a name that is symbolic as she is Joe’s destiny. This one woman will always be with him. I see my characters in my mind and hear them talk, so my other character names are based a lot on how the characters look. Sometimes I search for “popular names for men or women” on the internet in order to see lists. Starting with Havana Brown, my second novel, the stories take place in Chicago, so I have a lot of ethnic characters. For instance, Joe’s partner is Detective Sam Renaldo. I found his names by doing internet searches for common Hispanic first and last names. I chose his names based on what seemed to fit him. And on a rare occasion, I will use a friend’s first or last name for a character. I did that to pay homage to a late friend in Corrupted Souls.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Only once. When I decided to write a prequel for my second novel, I knew I would be employing subplots. Havana Brown has a main plot which is Joe Erickson on the trail of a serial killer. But there are two subplots. The first is his developing romantic relationship with Destiny. The second is Joe dealing with his aging father’s health issues. I wrote it in a tight chronological order. I devoted certain chapters to Joe and Destiny and some to Joe and his father. But even in those chapters, something happened with the serial killer case, so the main plot was still intertwined with the subplot chapters. The subplots did make for a longer book.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m a playwright as well as a novelist, and I approach playwriting as a pantser. But having written two screenplays, I learned to write them via Syd Field’s method, which is highly structured. And I applied that method to writing novels. Syd Field calls his structure a paradigm that essentially lays out the story in terms of three acts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Each is separated by a plot point which is a major event in the story. Since Act II is twice as long as either Act I and Act III, it has a mid-point, which is another type of plot point that turns the confrontation in a direction toward the resolution. Once these points are decided, you begin filling in the story elements. I like to think of these elements as potential chapters. When you actually begin writing, the elements of the paradigm remain fluid. They can change as you write, but the plot points remain constant because they are the major events you write toward.
What kind of research do you do? I like to be as accurate as possible, so I do a lot of research on various aspects of a story. My first novel took place in the Iowa county where I grew up, so I knew the area quite well. But I had to research local law enforcement when I was writing the screenplay. I interviewed the county sheriff, and he answered all of my questions. Covid has made it difficult for me to do on-the-ground research on my subsequent novels. I live in downstate Illinois, but my locations are in Chicago, and I have been unable to travel up there. Using Google searches has been a godsend. My fictional detective works out of Detective Area 3, which covers the north side of the city on the Lake Michigan side. I am somewhat familiar with that area and can look up nearly everything on the internet I need about neighborhoods and police districts covered by Area 3. I also called Area 3 and spoke to a detective a couple of times about a few technical things. When I began working on my third novel, Corrupted Souls, I discovered a former homicide detective on LinkedIn who still works out of Area 3. He agreed to be an adviser for me, and he has been a great resource.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use real locations in so far as street names, neighborhoods, hotels, and well-known landmarks in Chicago like the Art Institute, Burnham Harbor, Navy Pier, and places like that. What I don’t use are the names of actual businesses like restaurants, bars, theatres, independent stores, and so on. If I’m looking for a bar in a particular neighborhood, I’ll do an internet search, choose a particular establishment, and instead of giving the name, I will write something like, “an Irish pub on East Ohio Street.” I go to their website, look at photographs, and may use a few details in my description. Some savvy readers from Chicago may be able to guess the pub I’m referencing on East Ohio Street. If it is important, I will use a fictitious name for an establishment, but that is an exception to the rule.
How do our readers contact you?
They can contact me through my website at www.LSJohanson.com. I would be happy to respond to them. My books are available on Amazon, and there are links on my website.
Robert Dugoni, New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 20 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite police detective series, the David Sloane legal thriller series, and the Charles Jenkins espionage series, as well as several standalone novels including #1 Amazon Kindle download, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.
I’ve written in the past about the secret of writing, how I found it and how I define it when it comes to my own writing. This is a secret I first read about in Steven King’s book On Writing and later had confirmed at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference on a panel with Diana Gabaldon.
I didn’t understand the secret right away, but with time to reflect, I came to terms with it. Years ago, after having written five critically acclaimed novels, I had been let go by one of the big five publishers. I had time to read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, a book given to me many years before by my God-daughter at Christmas, 2004.
On the inside cover, she wrote.
Dear Uncle Bob.
I hope someday you become a rich, famous
millionaire like Stephen King.
It didn’t exactly happen that way, as it doesn’t for most writers.
But as I read King’s book, I came to a passage in which he revealed his secret of great storytelling. It was very simple, really. First, King posed a question. How does a writer sitting at her desk touch the heart and soul of a person she’s never met and never will, living in a small town she’s never visited and never will?
The secret Stephen King wrote is Telepathy.
All you have to do is find that place in your mind and telepathically touch the minds of your readers. Simple right?
About a year later, I was on a conference panel with Diana Gabaldon – the uber successful author of the Outlander series. At the end of our panel, we had time for questions, and this gentleman stood and said, “Diana. Can you explain the magic?”
Diana responded that she would go into her office, close the door, light a candle, and wait until her characters felt comfortable speaking to her. And whatever they said, she wrote. She talked about being in a place where she was not so much creating the story as she was transcribing a story being told to her.
I sat back and ruminated on those words and eventually recalled a time in my writing life when I had experienced something similar. My own bit of telepathy. My own magic… though I really didn’t recognize it at the time.
I was in the seventh grade. My class assignment was to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of a slave, a slave owner, or an abolitionist. I chose an abolitionist. I don’t recall writing my speech. What I do recall, quite vividly, is the feeling that overcame me when I stood at the front of my class and delivered that speech.
When I had finished – it was probably all of four minutes – not one of my classmates clapped. They sat at their desks and stared at me in silence. I remember thinking I’d failed. My story had failed. After a moment that felt like an eternity, Sister Kathleen cleared her throat and gave me the parochial school finger, beckoning me to follow her into the next classroom. She marched me in front of the class and said, “Give your speech.”
When finished, I looked to Sister Kathleen, and she gave me a smile and a nod. What I had done and, more importantly, how I had done it, would remain a mystery to me for many years, despite many more writing assignments in high school, newspaper articles, and novels, none of which would have the same emotional impact as that simple speech on slavery had on my seventh-grade class and on my teacher.
As I pondered King’s and Diana’s words, I realized that back in the seventh grade, I didn’t know the first thing about storytelling or story structure. I didn’t know what makes a good character. I wasn’t even writing from my head. I had written that speech from my heart.
Was that the answer? Was that what King and Gabaldon meant by telepathy and magic?
I went into my office, and I closed the door. I put on classical music. I put my hands on the keyboard. Then I waited.
The next day I tried again. Nothing.
I kept going back until finally, I heard this character in my head. He was telling me a story. His story. This boy had ocular albinism – red eyes. Kids had picked on him and bullied him and called him Sam Hell and Devil Boy. I didn’t know him. We had never met.
He would wake me at four o’clock in the morning and say, “I have more to tell you.”
So I’d go in my office and I’d sit at my desk, and I would transcribe what this boy told me. And when I was done, I had written The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell…
More importantly, I truly understood what Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King were talking about. What King called Telepathy. And Diana called Magic.
What I call Faith.
A writer has to have faith in his or herself in order to have faith in our stories. We have to have faith that the story we are writing is uniquely our own and that we are telling it raw and unfiltered, and honest. We have to give up control and stop trying to write stories from inside our heads and instead write stories from inside our hearts. Because that is the place where we can truly touch our readers.
We appeal to their minds, but we touch their hearts.
It’s a scary proposition when someone says write a story from your heart because it first requires that we have one and that we are willing to share it with readers, knowing that there will be some who stomp on it and inflict pain.
I feel that way before each new book. February 22, 2022, Thomas & Mercer will release The Silent Sister, the third in the Charles Jenkins espionage series. I think it is the best of the three books and I hope it touches readers’ hearts. It’s a story of selflessness, heroism, and dogged determination. It’s a story of brutality but also kindness. It’s a story of fulfilling one’s destiny, in spite of tremendous odds to the contrary.
I hope it’s a book that will touch readers’ hearts because that is the magic of writing.
How do our readers contact you?
How do we purchase The Silent Sisters? It’s available on Amazon Amazon.com: The Silent Sisters (Charles Jenkins): 9781542008341: Dugoni, Robert: Books
Heather Weidner has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. Vintage Trailers and Blackmailers is the first in her cozy mystery series, the Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries. She also writes the Delanie Fitzgerald mystery series set in Virginia (Secret Lives and Private Eyes, The Tulip Shirt Murders, and Glitter, Glam, and Contraband). Her Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries launches in January 2023.
Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series, 50 Shades of Cabernet, Deadly Southern Charm, and Murder by the Glass, and her novellas appear in The Mutt Mysteries series.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
Virginia is for Mysteries Volume III Virginia may be for lovers, but to fifteen authors, it’s more sinister. This anthology of sixteen short stories, set in the Commonwealth, features Virginia landmarks and locations such as the Church Hill Tunnel, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, the Historic Cavalier Hotel, St. Luke’s Historic Church, historic Ashland, and the Assateague Channel, to name a few. Be transported across the diverse backdrop of the Old Dominion to a unique and deadly landscape filled with murder and mayhem.
Authors: Teresa Inge, Heather Weidner, Kristin Kisska, Yvonne Saxon, Frances Aylor, Jayne Ormerod, Michael Rigg, Maggie King, Smita Harish Jain, Sheryl Jordan, Vivian Lawry, Maria Hudgins, Rosemary Shomaker, Max Jason Peterson, Judith Fowler
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I usually write in my office on my computer. We moved to a house in the woods, so I have a great view of the treetops. My two crazy Jack Russell terriers hang out with me and help me plot.
I get distracted by the internet. I pop on to research something, and then I find that I’ve been watching dog videos for an hour. I try to stay focused when I’m writing, but sometimes, it’s hard. I always have music playing in the background. Classical, spa, or jazz for writing. Louder music for revisions.
Tell us about your writing process. It took me about five years to write the first book and about another two until it was finally published. I am a lot faster now. At the pandemic’s start, I decided to use my normal commuting time for writing, and I was much more productive when I wrote every day.
I usually come up with the book ideas and title drafts first. Then I plot out an outline. I found that the plan for the book helps me to stay on track, and I don’t get lost or stuck. I draft the book. If I stick to my daily word counts, I usually finish the first draft in three months. Then I do several rounds of editing and revising. Then I send it to my critique group. Then it’s off to the editor, and I do lots of revisions. The manuscript goes to my agent and my publisher’s editors.
What are you currently working on? I write the Delanie Fitzgerald Mysteries, the Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries, and the Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries. I just finished the third book in the Mermaid Bay series, and I’m working on books four-six for the Glamping mysteries.
My short story, “Derailed,” is part of the Virginia is for Mysteries Anthology that launched this February. It’s full of stories about locations in Virginia. Mine takes place at the site of the infamous Church Hill Tunnel disaster, where a cave-in blocked the exits and trapped railroad workers and a train deep under the city of Richmond. The search and rescue quickly became a recovery mission—not all the victims were found. The railroad filled and sealed the tunnel with the train and some of the victims inside. The spooky site has been the center of local lore and legend about ghosts and even a vampire. I used the site and its history in my story, and there may be one more body than expected inside the tunnel.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Writing is a solitary task, and you need your crew. I am so lucky to be a part of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and International Thriller Writers. These offer networking and learning opportunities. I treasure the contacts I’ve made, and I am so grateful to all the talented authors who share their time and advice.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave? None of my characters behave. My sleuths are strong-willed, determined, and sassy females who get into way more trouble than I do. I plot the mysteries and have an idea where the story is going, but they often have a will of their own.
One minor character in the first Delanie book was supposed to just make an appearance as a sleazy strip club owner. He was so much fun to write that he joined the cast full time, and he shows up (warts and all) in all the books.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? I get a lot of my material and ideas from those around me. No conversation or story is safe. I take notes and use names, places, and fun anecdotes. Usually, the characters are an amalgamation of several different people and traits. I use names of real people and places from time to time, and if you look closely, you’ll see some character names from pop culture.
What kind of research do you do? I do a lot of research for my mysteries. Readers want to learn about new things, and I want the story to be as accurate as possible. For my WIP (work in progress), I’m researching haunted places in Virginia, ghost hunting technology, tiny houses, and glamping.
I’m Cop’s Kid. My dad is my best law enforcement resource. He’s retired from forty-six years on the force and is always willing to answer my weird questions. There are just some things you don’t want to Google, like, “Hey, Dad, what does a meth lab smell like” or “what caliber of bullet would make this kind of wound.”
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I write where I know. I grew up in Virginia Beach. I now live outside of Richmond. I use a lot of Virginia locales in my stories. The Commonwealth has so much to offer: mountains, beaches, a central, East Coast location, historic sites, and fantastic restaurants.
If I have a scene where there is a gruesome crime, I make up the location.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Writing is a business, and you have to treat it like one. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. You need to be persistent. Hone your craft, network with other authors, and build your author platform. There is no feeling like opening that box of books and seeing your name on the cover.
How do our readers contact you or purchase the books?
Book Link: Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09GGBFWT5