If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
G.P. Gottlieb is the author of Charred: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (D.X. Varos Publishing 2023), the third in her culinary mystery series. She is host for New Books in Literature, a podcast channel on the New Books Network, and has interviewed over 170 authors. You can read more about her at her site: https://www.gpgottlieb.com/, on Facebook: authorgottlieb, and Instagram: WhippedSipped.
In the first draft of Charred: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery (DX Varos 2023), I just wrote whatever popped into my head. I created superfluous back stories for nearly every character, including a few of protagonist Alene Baron’s many employees in the café. I included details that nobody cares about, mentioned the protagonist’s run-in with a mean girl in middle school even though she’s a grown woman with children of her own, and went on for pages about her sister.
I let my imagination go wild. I also covered memories of Alene’s mother who died of breast cancer, her post-graduation trip to Greece, and her thoughts about several previous boyfriends. There were pages and pages about her ex-husband. None of it was important to the story, which takes place during the summer of 2020. You might remember that was when a highly contagious and poorly understood virus was galloping across the globe, killing millions, and forcing many of us to hide in our homes.
The pandemic is one of several struggles my protagonist faces. It doesn’t play a leading role, but rumbles in the background like a volcano about to erupt. I remember those months of worrying about homeless people and those forced to beg on streets that were empty of cars or pedestrians. We could walk for miles (in sweet home, Chicago), and see very few other people braving the possibility of crossing paths with the virus.
The characters in my book were frightened, like all of us. I wanted to tell those stories – it didn’t matter if they were going to be cut later because they helped me get into the characters’ heads. The pandemic was like a simmering evil presence, sitting in the corner holding a weapon – everyone was afraid, but we all went about our business because there is a limit to how much time any of us can spend staring at the walls before we go mad.
In ongoing chapters, my protagonist struggles with a decision about admitting something important. In my first draft, she flashes back to missing her cousin’s funeral while she was traveling in Greece with her best friend. She remembers the sun, the history, and that her guilt boiled down to disappointing her parents. When she finally faces her current dilemma, the reader understands that she’s conscious of all the wrong decisions she’s made, even though I cut those early travel scenes.
After I’ve filled extraneous pages with a myriad of unnecessary details, and the first draft is achingly long, I start the process that will turn it into a readable novel. My goal is to focus on telling a story in which each chapter moves the action, and the combination of all the chapters form a forward thrusting arc. I make sure that the pandemic is tucked behind a wall – still there, but not pounding on the glass to be let in.
Each time I’ve completed another draft, I’d show it to my editor/teacher, who has a gift for striking out what can go unsaid, and highlighting what needs more attention. This is the third book she’s helped me pull together with ideas for re-ordering chapters, adding missing information, strengthening the climax, and polishing the ending.
Sometimes I wonder if I could save time and effort by avoiding my propensity for long, blabby explanations and my need to tell you everything I know about any given person or situation. That happens both in writing and real life. But my method has worked for three books now, and as we often say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it*.”
*The phrase has been attributed to a government official during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, but there are enough earlier quotes to keep it solidly in the, “It is said” realm of aphorisms.
Helen Starbuck, no relation to the coffee bunch, is an award-winning author of the standalone suspense novels Legacy of Secrets, Finding Alex, and The Woman He Used to Know, and the Annie Collins Mystery Series. A native, her books are set in Denver and other Colorado locations. Her writing companion is her cat Bean.
A Cold Case of Conscience, an Annie Collins Mystery – Helping Detective Frost review cold cases, Annie Collins can’t resist the pull of a recent murder that may be connected to a 20-year-old cold case. To further complicate matters, Annie’s husband’s ability to tolerate the repercussions of her involvement with Frost is at an end, forcing her to choose between helping Frost or potentially damaging her marriage.
Writers and their characters are strange bedfellows. The fiction writing process is an odd one, for me at least. I often wonder if other writers have strong-willed characters and if they behave or run wild? My characters are very opinionated. They don’t run wild, but boy can they be hard to wrangle. They often come to me in the middle of the night with, “Have you thought about this?” Propositions to let me know they’ve decided to do something different or that I have taken them in the wrong direction. It’s my imagination—I don’t need meds—but I’ve begun to wonder if my characters live in an alternate universe that I am allowed to tap into. Their worlds are very real to me.
I hadn’t planned on writing a series, but I like my characters so much that I ended up doing just that. And they often morph into ways I hadn’t planned on. Detective Frost, a character in my Annie Collins Mystery Series, was supposed to be a one-off character, but he decided to be a mainstay of the series. It didn’t take a lot to persuade me; he’s a very likable, irascible character who keeps Annie, my main character, grounded. Angel Cisneros was, initially, just going to be Annie’s neighbor—a lawyer for her to bounce ideas off, but no major romance. Then he decided to fall in love with her and become more than a friend. That was not my plan. Although now, I can’t imagine telling the story any other way.
Characters can also be a major pain. The first three books in the series, The Mad Hatter’s Son, No Pity in Death, and The Burden of Hate, seemed to flow from my brain to the page without too much difficulty. There were times when I struggled or boxed myself into a corner or got lost in the weeds, but my characters talked to me, and ideas were abundant. After The Burden of Hate was published, they went silent. I joke that I put my main characters through such hell in Burden, that they didn’t want anything to do with me. But it was true—they weren’t giving me any help. I came up with four different plot ideas, none of which I was keen about, and all of which were vetoed by my editor and my beta readers. I was stymied.
It was at that point that two brand new characters appeared and told me a story about a family filled with secrets and a daughter’s search for answers. At a writing seminar, the teacher put several copies of iconic paintings on the table and told us to pick one that spoke to us and write about it for fifteen minutes. A picture of an old, abandoned farmhouse in the midst of a field of grass called to me, and Kate Earnshaw and Evan Hastings started talking. That was the beginning of Legacy of Secrets, a standalone romantic suspense novel.
Annie Collins and Angel Cisneros from the series were still refusing to talk to me, so I decided to stop stressing about it and let other stories come. And they did. Driving to Boulder along Highway 93 one afternoon, the beginning to Finding Alex popped into my head with the thought that the drop offs along both sides of the highway would be a perfect place to leave a body. But, I thought, what if the person wasn’t dead and stumbled out into the highway in front of a detective’s car? Blake Halloran and Alex Kincaid began telling their story. In The Woman He Used to Know, a scene between Nick Ryan and Elizabeth Harper that ends disastrously and later places Nick in a compromising position popped into my head clear as a bell.
Four years later, after my three standalone novels were written and published, Annie and Angel finally decided to talk to me. Unfortunately, they wanted to tell me all about their private lives and weren’t all that interested in a mystery. I gave in to them and wrote a number of short stories about their lives to keep them talking. I struggled with a plot, and I struggled with them, but at last, a plot for book four materialized.
A Cold Case of Conscience will be out in 2023, and Annie, Angel, and I are happy to be talking again. I haven’t decided if book four will be the last in the series, but there are plenty of other characters who are anxious to tell their stories. It’s important to listen to them.
Colorado Author’s League
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
Sisters in Crime (National and Colorado chapter)
Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (National and local)
Faye Snowden is the author of The Killing series (Flame Tree Press) featuring homicide detective Raven Burns. A Killing Rain, the second book in the series, was released in June, 2022 and was selected as one of CrimeRead’s best gothic fiction novels of the year.
Faye has published short stories and poems in various literary journals, anthologies, and small presses. Her articles have appeared in Writer’s Digest and Salon. Her short story, “One Bullet. One Vote,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery & Suspense 2021. Faye is a member of MWA, as well as Sisters in Crime, and served as secretary for SinC National. Aside from her publications, she managed two boys, a husband, five dogs, and three writing fellowships over the years. Today, Faye works and writes from her home in Northern California.
A Killing Rain (Flame Tree, 2022) – Former homicide detective Raven Burns returns to Byrd’s Landing, Louisiana, to begin a new life but soon finds herself trapped by the old one. Her nephew has been kidnapped by a serial killer, and her foster brother becomes the main suspect. To make matters worse, she is being pursued by two men— one who wants to redeem her soul for the murder Raven felt she had no choice but to commit and another who wants to lock her away forever.
Do you write in more than one genre? I love this as a lead question because it’s an important one that’s not asked often enough. Even though I describe myself as a mystery author, I write all kinds of things. I’ve been lucky enough to publish in Salon and Writer’s Digest and craft short stories that were well received. As for longer works, I started by writing romantic suspense. I’ve recently been enjoying the journey of creating southern gothic crime fiction. But it’s important to strengthen your writing muscle by experimenting with other genres. Writing short stories does that for me. I don’t know how good I am at it, yet, but I would love to be one of those people who could sit down and dash off a short story in one sitting. I’ve read that Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, was such a person. If you are ever looking for writing advice that will both inspire you and make you smile, check out his Zen in the Art of Writing. I dream about taking up his challenge of writing one short story a week for 52 weeks. New Year’s resolution, anyone?
What brought you to writing? Absence brought me to writing. The things that were missing in existing media. I’ve said before that I used TV and books as an escape when I was growing up. The problem was that I didn’t see a lot of stories with people like me in them. I found myself rewriting the stories I watched on television or read in books by filling them with African Americans and strong female characters essential to the plot.
I think the first thing I ever wrote for public viewing was a poem called Insanity. I don’t know where it is now. But I remember my English teacher at first accusing me of plagiarism and then saying that if I did write the poem, I had a talent that needed to be developed. I decided to focus on the latter half of that backhanded compliment, and now here I am today.
Tell us about your writing process. My writing process changes with each book. But basically, the first thing I start with is an idea or maybe some questions. For the Killing series, the questions I started with were these— in what ways can a daughter escape the sins of her father? And how much should she be held accountable for those sins? I usually have a character in mind by then. Sometimes, they show up whole, and I don’t have to do much development. Others I have to spend some time getting to know them. Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird has a great chapter on how to develop character. After that, I build a skeletal outline and then free-write. What happens after free-write? You guessed it. Edit, edit, edit.
When I think about the editing piece, I’m reminded of the rumor that Jack Kerouac wrote his famous novel, On the Road in three weeks on a continuous roll of computer paper (Jack Kerouac’s Famous, ‘On the Road’ Again’, NPR). I remember going through college and grad school ultra-impressed by that. Now that I’m a writer myself, I’ve learned that what many seldom mention is what happened after. The scroll draft went through many revisions, rewrites, and edits, as it should have. To me, that proves my mantra. Write fast. Edit slow.
Kerouac’s Famous scroll
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run wild? Yes! My characters do not obey. You’d think it would be Raven who believes that rules regarding her job are mere guidelines and authority figures should be challenged as the character I have the most problems with. But, no. She’s easy. It’s the laidback Billy Ray, her former partner, who is going to much darker places than I’d like. I’ve found through the years that sometimes you have to let characters go where they will. Chances are it’s the story that is driving them into other lanes.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Byrd’s Landing is a fictional town in Louisiana based on the years I’ve spent growing up there. I like fictional spaces because they allow you the flexibility that real settings do not. And because I based the fictional setting on the place where I spent my formative years, it’s a rich, fertile ground for storytelling.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Yes, the first is to read and read widely, even things outside of your comfort zone. Ray Bradbury is credited with saying, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” (Our Top Ten Ray Bradbury Quotes, NEA) I always tell new writers to fall in love with reading, especially if they weren’t already in love with it.
The second is to study the craft. I used to think that anyone could write, but I don’t think that now. Anyone can start writing from pure exhilaration after stumbling upon a brilliant idea. If they lack craft, however, they will run out of steam when the excitement does. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said inspiration will only take you so far, but it’s craft that will get you the rest of the way.
The third is to be professional. This is a business, after all. Don’t publicly trash agents or other writers or other writers’ works. And put some distance between you and your work product. Be thoughtful about suggestions for improvements, and become that writer who finds value in the editing process.
And finally, find your community. I belong to both Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I would be lost without them.
How do our readers contact you? I hang out on Twitter and Instagram occasionally. A lot of people are gravitating toward my Facebook page as well. Here’s a snapshot of where you can find me in the ether.
Barbara Emodi writes sewing and craft-related cozy mysteries based in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she lives. She travels frequently and writes in the winter in Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California.
For many years Barbara led a double life. Publicly she was a journalist, radio commentator, government strategist, and public relations professor. In her private life, she wrote and sewed for herself and her family, immediate and extended. She has published two books about garment construction.
Often when Barbara sewed, she thought of the people she’d met and the stories she could tell and of the things she knew and the things she suspected. As a result, she now writes mysteries for people who make things on the premise that those who create can investigate. A sewing pattern, a knitting stitch, a missing person, a dead body––to her mind, understanding them all requires the same skill set. Crafting for Murder is the first in a series.
Crafting for Murder – Seamstress, crafter, and empty-nester Valerie Rankin has plans to open a crafter’s co-op that will put Gasper’s Cove, Nova Scotia, on the tourist guide map. But one month before the opening day photo shoot, she still has to pin down a venue, patch up the family business, iron out corruption in town council, and unravel why anyone who tries to help her ends up dead. It’s a lot, even for a woman who’s used to making something out of nothing. But with the help of her Golden Retriever, an ex-con who loves cats, and a community of first, second, and third cousins, she just might pull it off.
Crafting for Murder will be released on February 25, 2023, and will be available through all the usual outlets and on pre-order here.
My responses to some interesting questions:
What brought you to writing? I’ve written for a living, journalism, and things like that, my whole life. But that’s calling-a-cab-writing. You know you have a job and a word count. You write it, and you file it. But then I ended up working for a public figure who needed a column written for the newspaper at home. He asked me to write it. I remember one afternoon typing out, “My father was a coal miner…” with tears on my face, and then I thought, “Hang on, Barbara, your father was a pharmacist.” This gave me the idea I could write fiction.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I write cozy mysteries. I chose this genre because I feel completely unqualified to write about sex or violence. In a cozy mystery, characters are extremely important. The readers tend to be folks who are interested in people they can identify with. It seems to me as a writer that if you get too linear with crime-clues-solving the mystery, the story can get very procedural and factual—hard to slip in character development in a steady way. So, I use subplots as little side stories that give space to show who the characters are. Also, let’s face it, even cozies involve bad stuff like death and betrayal, etc. I think that can get tiring for someone sitting down with a cup of tea looking for a diversion, so I also like to use subplots to build platforms, generally using humor as a resting place for the reader every now from the action. The subplots involve secondary characters, and these are percolating alongside stories that surface about every 4-7 chapters. I also like two subplots, one that is funny and one that has the main character struggling, and we hope, eventually, overcoming a weakness or vulnerability.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? I don’t think I could write if I didn’t. In fact, to get into the story, I generally have someone in mind when I develop a character. I keep myself from being sued by using the traits of several people mixed up into one. My siblings like to read what I write because they can pick up mannerisms and expressions and know where I got them. I did describe one living room, however, as “decorated in the style of furniture from dead relatives combined with impeccable housekeeping …” Remind me not to give my across-the-street neighbor a copy of the book.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? Ha, ha, ha. By disposition, I have a mind like a squirrel cage, so I make multiple cards with what I think are great details or ideas and then try to fit them into some kind of plot line. I work hard at it, and it wears me out to plot, and I hate it. But I try because I know it’s not easy to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going. So, I have an elaborate plot all written out before I start. I never look at it or refer to it again. At halfway, I realize I am writing a totally unrelated story, so I stop and make a whole new plot to fit. I guess I am a pantser who creates a workable plot in the middle of the book. It’s a system that wastes the maximum amount of time.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Real, completely real; only the names have been changed. I write about small communities in Nova Scotia, which are by definition stranger than fiction anyway, so they are the perfect setting for my writing. Interestingly, the most accurate parts are the ones people not from here might query. I had one editor tell me that she couldn’t stand the fact that everyone in my book was related, “and yet another cousin appears….” I read her email on the way out the door to the wedding of my niece to my son-in-law’s nephew. I had no idea what she was talking about.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I started late in the game but couldn’t have written fiction earlier as I consider my life up to now just gathering material. That said, all I want to do now is get it into as many books as I can.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Although fiction is pretend, it must come from an authentic place. Be as authentic as possible; don’t try to be, or sound, like someone else. You might think the real you isn’t all that interesting, but the real always is. When you can access that, you are in the zone. Trust your subconscious. Sometimes stuff is thrown up from somewhere onto the page when you are in the zone you hardly recognize, except for the fact it just sounds right, and like you. Don’t try too hard or labor too much. Go for the glide.
Groups I belong to:
Sisters in Crime
Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter
Readers can learn more about me at my website https://babsemodi.com and sign up for my newsletter there too.
I love to hear from readers, and they can contact me directly at email@example.com
MacArthur lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She wrote the Steampunk series, The Volcano Lady, and the Gaslight Adventures of Tom Turner, as well as the Noir-punk mystery Lou Tanner, P.I.: A Place of Fog and Murder. She has also written for several local and specialized publications, anthologies and was an accidental sports reporter for Reuters News.
Her storytelling changed direction recently to embrace the paranormal, her lifelong obsession, with her newest novel set in the Four Corner region of Colorado, not far from where she grew up.
Do you write in more than one genre? How did you start? I started this whole wild ride when I was complaining about the lack of quality and just plain absurdity of a Steampunk anthology I’d spent time reading. I was pretty furious that female characters, what few there were, were clearly written by fellows who rarely, if ever, spent time with women. The stories were weak excuses for swearing, ridiculous situations, and plotless meandering. My friend, inventor, and former movie prop specialist Jay Davis looked at me with that “quit your moaning” glare – up went his eyebrow – and he said the best words ever – “well, if you don’t like it, write one yourself.”
My first genre (first of many) was Steampunk. I loved the aesthetic, the fierce adventure, and the romantic notions. From there, I found Dieselpunk. If you aren’t familiar with the terms or genre, Steampunk is basically Victorian Age Science Fiction Fantasy. Dieselpunk is an early 20th Century Science Fiction Fantasy (Flash Gordon meets Philip Marlow or Sci-Fi WWI to WWII.) The “punk” is used to indicate an opposition to the establishment, such as the government or society as a whole. Thus both genres are filled to the brim with strong women (that anthology notwithstanding) doing exciting and dynamic things.
What brought you to writing? Heaven forbid I should suggest that the writing bug just hit me one day. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t either writing or drawing. My mother, MaryMargaret Seldon, worked for companies that used those old mimeograph machines – you know those – purple ink, smeared pages – yes, those. The unreadable pages were marked on only one side and tossed away. She would bring them home so I could type up my stories on the clean side. Yup! Old Crown typewriter, long messy ribbon that had to be changed, an eraser that was like sandpaper and could rub a hole in your paper … that typewriter. Sometimes I wish I still had it.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? Ah, distractions. My nemesis. Social Media can be a true time killer because, for many of us, it isn’t just our marketing source. It is our means of connecting to damn near everything and everyone. So, I’m trying out Alec Peche’s sprint writing and setting brief writing times. My “pad” could probably fit on a puppy-pee pad. It’s small. So I write at my little desk or take it on the road. The Goddesses and the Muses invented the feather-light laptop (Bill and Steve, hush!) I have discovered coffee houses and breakfast joints all over the SF Bay Area, but my favorite is Linh’s Café on College at Ashby.
What are you currently working on? I decided during the Plague – excuse me, Pandemic – to try my hand at something new. I failed. Marvelously, I failed. I tried making an Eliza-punk story. Maybe later. Some Fan Fiction? Nope. Cozy Mystery? Definitely later, but not yet. And then I flopped around like the proverbial fish out of water. That’s when Sharon E. Cathcart told me about Sisters in Crime. Every weekend it was one lecture or another workshop. I couldn’t get enough, and with everything via Zoom, I was meeting people from all over the country. Now I belong to the Horror Writers Association, the Mystery Writers of America, The Thriller Writers Association, the Southwest Writers, and the Author’s Guild. I think I have a joining problem.
These days, I’ve embraced my love of the paranormal. I’ve always loved ghost stories, ancient curses, tombs and relics, magic, and mystery. That love drove me to write The Skin Thief, set in my old home state of Colorado, in the Canyons of the Ancients. As a child, I never had the opportunity to visit Mesa Verde or any of the ancient Puebloan sites. Now I get to write about a fictitious cliff dwelling with a terrifying, murderous spirit. Romantic Suspense meets Paranormal Thriller. What a blast to write.
Meanwhile, I haven’t exactly walked away from my Steampunk roots. I published a set of novellas called The Gaslight Adventures of Tom Turner. But novella sets aren’t popular with readers the way they had been. Also, I’m not the same writer I was in 2014. Thus I’ve determined that I am going to bring all the adventures together into one freshly revised and edited novel for re-release—new cover, new format, and perhaps a new title.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am a proud OutPantser. I outline and go into intimate detail about each chapter, each character, and each situation. Then I throw that out after writing the first one thousand words. I re-write the outline, a tad bit more vague this time, and mostly stick to it. But I will confess, I often get to the middle with an ending clear in my mind and no roadmap on how I’m going to get from page 175 to page 300. That’s usually when something completely off the wall hits me – no, not the clock I should have used a larger nail for – another body, bigger guns, or even a twist on the McGuffin. Then I go back, re-write so that the new idea fits, and race to the finish line. Raymond Chandler (and MM Chouinard, who offered me good advice when I got stuck on my latest) said, “when in doubt, send in a guy with a gun.”
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Well, I must say the first thing the future holds is this blog interview. Thank you, George. Offering your blog to help your fellow authors is marvelous. Next up, getting my new blog and brand going. Never stop creating yourself. And never stop sharing – there will be a great deal of that coming in 2023. Thank you again, and here’s wishing everyone the best in the coming year.
You can find her at www.TEMacArthur.com