Jennifer J. Chow is the Lefty Award-nominated author of the Sassy Cat Mysteries and the L.A. Night Market Mysteries. The first in the Sassy Cat series, Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, was selected as an OverDrive Recommended Read, a PopSugar Best Summer Beach Read, and one of BuzzFeed’s Top 5 Books by AAPI authors.
JENNIFER currently serves as Vice President on the national board of Sisters in Crime. She is an active member of Crime Writers of Color and Mystery Writers of America. Connect with her online at www.jenniferjchow.com
Death by Bubble Tea Two cousins who start a food stall at their local night market get a serving of murder in this first novel of a delicious new cozy mystery series.
This is the first in a new series! I’m excited about the L.A. Night Market Mysteries because it combines my own personal history of working at a family restaurant with my love for food. Also, I get to add recipes at the back of the book!
(My other recent cozy series is the Lefty Award-nominated Sassy Cat Mysteries, which feature Los Angeles pet groomer Mimi Lee and her sassy telepathic cat, Marshmallow.)
How do you come up with character names? In general, I get inspiration from baby name books, online name generators, and the Social Security archives. For Death by Bubble Tea, Yale popped into my head because I know a few folks who are named after universities (yes, I do know a Harvard!). Celine’s name cropped up because I wanted to pay homage to celebrity-inspired names (along with popular artists and songs that my family enjoys karaokeing to).
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run the show? My characters usually run the show. I’d love for them to rein themselves in, but a few like to hog the limelight. On the other hand, it puts them in interesting and precarious sleuthing situations. My comedic characters often add a huge dose of sparkling wit and humor.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I usually do have a subplot. A lot of these are character-driven. In my last Sassy Cat Mystery, Mimi Lee Cracks the Code, Mimi Lee and her boyfriend Josh go on a romantic getaway that soon turns sour. She’s got crimes to solve—and a relationship to mend!
With Death by Bubble Tea, there’s an ongoing conflict with recently arrived Celine. Yale has to deal with her opposite personality cousin along with running a new food stall.
The subplots come organically, as I think they do in real life. People are dealing with multiple things on an everyday basis, and that’s reflected in my stories.
What kind of research do you do? I try to research in all sorts of ways. The Sassy Cat series had me visiting pet salons, going down the rabbit hole of YouTube pet grooming videos, and having vivid encounters with animals at dog readings, cat cafes, and more.
With the L.A. Night Market series, I suppose I unknowingly did pre-research. I’ve gone to multiple night markets (think lively festivals set in the evenings) in Asia and in the States. My family has roots in Southern China and Hong Kong, so I didn’t have to research those cultural aspects as much. However, I did keep a dim sum cookbook around while writing and had a Chinese dictionary handy. Since Book 1 is called Death by Bubble Tea, I also did obligatory boba tastings (yum!). For the recipes in the back of the book, I made several attempts and passed those culinary efforts on to my family to eat and drink.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I have a mix of real and fictional in my settings. Usually, it’s a made-up community in an actual geographic region. For example, the L.A. Night Market series has a small fictional planned community called Eastwood Village, but it’s positioned in the greater West L.A. area. I also had fun inserting real sites into this new series, particularly with the more unique locations that Yale and Celine visit as Yale takes her cousin around and introduces her to Los Angeles.
Vicki Weisfeld’s short stories have appeared in leading mystery magazines and various anthologies, winning awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Public Safety Writers Association. She’s a book reviewer for the UK website, crimefictionlover.com.
The crime/mystery/thriller genre is what I like to read, so that’s what I write. Puzzles, seeing justice meted out, preventing catastrophes. Some thirty of my short stories have been published, and this summer, my first novel, the murder mystery Architect of Courage, comes from Black Opal Books. I especially enjoy stories about ordinary people in difficult situations where they must use their wits and skills in new and unexpected ways. And I like a story with a bit of a lift at the end. Not necessarily a happy ending, but one trending toward better days.
My novel’s protagonist, successful Manhattan architect Archer Landis, is one of those ordinary people. Ordinary, that is because he doesn’t have any martial arts training or obscure weapons expertise. No experience tracking ne’er-do-wells. He is a Vietnam veteran, but his service was decades before this story takes place in the summer of 2011.
People often ask where I get my ideas. The short answer is: everywhere. Real-life events, interesting people, or amalgams of several of them, tricky situations born in my imagination can be an initial spark. Architect of Courage is a 350-page novel that started with a specific imagined situation. I envisioned a married man (Landis) entering his girlfriend’s apartment and finding her murdered. It’s all I had, and I covered it in the first two pages. 348 to go!
The threads that eventually worked their way into the story—his marriage, his troubled relationship with his son, how the police treat him, their suspicions about the dead woman, her faked identity, whom he relies on among his friends and colleagues, the succession of mysterious attacks—all that developed later.
If you know the terms “plotter” and “pantser,” you’ve probably already pegged me as a “pantser.” I could no more plot out all my scenes before I begin, as some excellent writers do than I could fly to the moon. I write by the seat of my pants, letting the story grow organically, and the relationships deepen as it moves forward. I throw in bits of information (potential clues) as they occur to me and keep those that ultimately fit. Yes, it’s a little messy at times, but I enjoy that thrill of discovery.
For example, early in the story, the police show Landis shocking photos of scars on his girlfriend’s wrists, evidence of a serious suicide attempt. He hadn’t known about that. The explanation of the scars isn’t revealed for 258 pages, when it emerges as a significant piece of evidence, totally unanticipated those many pages earlier. I credit my subconscious mind with figuring out that problem and giving me the answer when I could use it!
Truthfully, I do make some efforts to organize the chaos. When I get to a place where I can’t easily answer the question, “now what?” I take a big sheet of paper, write the main character’s name in the center, and array all the other characters around, maybe with a few notes about their conflicts or characteristics. Then I draw lines to show how they intersect. Opportunities for new and unexpected connections emerge and points of possible conflict. Perhaps a superfluous character is revealed—someone with few connections to anyone else. That person may best be edited out!
One strategy I’ve found helpful in moving from short story to novel is to keep a list of “story questions.” I can’t reveal everything upfront; it is a mystery! Unresolved issues may be, “Where did the gun come from?” or “How did he know she’s allergic to shellfish?” Making sure all those questions or clues have answers—artfully buried, I hope—means that when readers reach the end, they feel satisfied. Television programs too often do not do this. The credits roll, and it’s “What just happened?”
Nor can I withhold some key piece of information and plop it on the last page. Readers have to have reasons to at least suspect that two characters are brother and sister, for example. They need “Aha!” moments. As Aristotle pronounced a long time ago, the best endings are both surprising and inevitable.
I’m also asked what it was like to write a male protagonist. I’ve spent a lot of time around confident, assertive men. I know how they act. Landis is a busy, successful professional. He’s not rude, but he’s direct. It saves time. He’s also a mentor to the people working for him in a profession that requires creativity. He can’t squash their inventiveness, and he’s full of praise when it’s merited. Typically, he makes clear his expectations about end results and lets them figure out how to get there.
I did pick over his dialog to make sure it wasn’t laden with weak phrases like “I just want,” “If you don’t mind,” “May I suggest,” and qualifiers like “somewhat” or “kind of,” which I consider waffle-words. If Landis wants something, he says so. And I usually substitute “need” for “want.” There’s a website where you can paste in your manuscript—any length—and run it through an analyzer to find out whether it reads “masculine” or “feminine.” Architect of Courage is “weakly male,” but at least it’s male! I found that aspect of writing this book interesting. Fun, too.
A few words about the publishing journey. Long. Hard. Exhausting. Though I’ve internalized all the advice about crafting pitch letters, synopses, etc., my queries to agents rarely received a response. I gave up on that and turned to smaller publishers who take unagented queries and are open to genre literature, especially crime. Architect of Courage was professionally edited twice. While, on the one hand, I hoped this would suggest to prospective publishers they wouldn’t have to invest a lot of editorial time, on the other, I didn’t want to give the impression I considered the book perfect and would resist their ideas and suggestions.
The best advice I have for wading into the publishing waters is to develop a long—and growing—list of prospects and send queries (strictly adhering to their wildly varying requirements, of course) in batches of three to five. Two weeks later, send another batch. An Excel spreadsheet helps, and save a copy of each cover letter to be sure of what you sent. Having additional prospects in the wings keeps the job from being too disheartening. I handle my short stories the same way. Rejection? Fine. Next! At least it has worked for me thirty times!
Vicki blogs at www.vweisfeld.com.
Judy Lussie uses her cultural background to write stories about Asian-American women. Her latest novella, Bought Daughter, is based on her grandparents’ immigration to America.
Judy writes women’s contemporary novels. Lake Biwa Wishes and the sequel Second Time Around were her first two novels. Her short stories have been included in several anthologies. Her most recent novel is titled Bought Daughter.
The original Moy sisters and their mother. The baby is Judy.
Bought Daughter: When she was a child, Mei-Ling’s poverty-stricken father sold her to a wealthy family. Despite her status as a Bought Daughter, she was determined to go to America. When the Chinese missionary Ah Pu proposed marriage and travel to the New World, she jumped at the chance, even though she did not believe in his God. Could a Christian and an atheist succeed in marriage? Would her past forever haunt her?
What brought you to writing? While on the Board of Directors of Presbyterian publishing Corporation, I was asked to write a week’s worth of devotions for These Days Magazine. At the time, I was the Technical Information Director of Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. This was my first experience in paid non-technical writing. As a result, I received many letters from old friends and compliments from new readers. One man wrote that his wife suffered the same disease I had–polymyositis. The following year he wrote that his wife had died. I offered my prayers. Then later he wrote that he met a widow whom he asked to marry and thanked me for supporting him with my letters. Until then, I never realized how writing could help another person.
Has association membership helped you or your writing? Yes. California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch (of which I was Program Chair), San Francisco Writers Conference (5-year volunteer), and several writing classes. I met many New York Times best-selling authors and learned more about the art of writing, publishing, and marketing.
Who is your favorite author? I have many, but Lisa See, Erica Jong, and Catherine Coulter are at the top of my list. Each one writes in a different sub-genre, but all are great writers. Lisa See writes historical novels, Erica Jong writes women’s novels, and Catherine Coulter writes crime fiction.
Do you base your characters on real people? Yes. The characters in Bought Daughter are based on my grandparents, aunts, and uncle. The character Kyoko in Second Time Around is based on my granddaughter (when she was 3). I tried making up characters, but they seemed phony.
What kind of research do you do? The research for Bought Daughter fell into my lap. While visiting Angel Island Immigration Station, I was told I could find more information in NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). Previously, as a technical information manager, I was required to send NARA information with strict requirements. Finally, I became a user instead of a contributor. When I entered the facility, I showed them my grandparents’ travel info and signed up as a researcher. The attendant wheeled a cart full of papers in both Chinese and English, which they photocopied for me. With all that information, I knew I had to share it with others. I also use online resources. Taryn Edwards provided a comprehensive list of historical resources.
Where do you place your settings –real or fictional locations? I feel my story is more accurate in the locations I visited. For my first two books, I lived in Japan for two years and skied in many ski resorts around the world. For Bought Daughter, I lived in Chicago Chinatown as a child. I visited China as an adult.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Write, write, write. Even if you just put the manuscript on a shelf. Read, read, read. Highlight passages that move your heart and soul.
Thank you, George Cramer, for inviting me to be a guest blogger.
I can be contacted by email at Sursum Corda Press, LLC. I welcome your comments and questions.
Paula Chinick is the international award-winning author for Red Asscher~Living in Fear—a WWII spy thriller series, which includes Living in Turmoil and Living in War. She is a CWC Tri-Valley Writers past vice-president, president, and conference project manager. Paula’s publishing company, Russian Hill Press, has been in business since 2014.
I have published a WWII historical spy thriller series under the title Red Asscher, Living in Fear, Living in Turmoil, and Living in War. The stories are set in 1943. In the first novel, Anya Pavlovitch, a Russian expat working for the U.S. War Department, is asked to assist a naval officer who is being sent to Japanese occupied Shanghai. Throughout the series, the two try to flee China but find themselves caught up in situations that impede their escape.
What are you currently working on? I am currently working on a prequel set in Russia in 1898 through the revolution and ends in China in 1920, where the first book begins. The story centers on Anya’s parents.
What brought you to writing? I have been writing since I was a tween but didn’t get serious until I was laid off in 2008. In hindsight probably the best thing to have happened. I love the freedom that stream of consciousness writing allows. It may end up being crap, but it’s exciting to see the words appear on the page as your mind reels.
Tell us about your writing process: When I wrote my first book, I spent 8 hours a day writing and editing. It was my job, and I took it very seriously. In the other books, I relaxed a bit and would try to write 1000 words a day. Sometimes it worked, other times not so much. Currently, I’m taking a break. I recently adopted a puppy who is in training which occupies most of my waking hours.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? It’s easy to write the beginning and the ending. What’s difficult is all the stuff in the middle. There are days, even weeks where my mind is blank. I try to research for inspiration; sometimes, it works; other times, I have to wait for the muse to strike.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Definitely. My membership with the California Writers Club has been invaluable in helping me to become a better writer, editor, and critiquing. It has opened doors to conferences, workshops, and seminars. All important outlets if you want to be a serious writer.
Who’s your favorite author? I fell in love with the Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. I love historical fiction, and his writing inspires me. I also enjoy reread Jane Austin, D. H. Lawrence, and my favorite, Dashiell Hammett.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Off and on about ten years. I didn’t get serious until about four years before I published the first in the series. After the first one, it took about three years to publish the second and another three years for the third.
How do you come up with character names? I used a few family names and researched foreign names for those characters that were outside of the U.S.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I don’t find it any more challenging than writing from the same sex but at a different age. I use a combination of characteristics from people or children I’ve known or know. I have men and women beta read to see if the characters are believable.
Do you ever kill a popular character? If so, what happens to your story? I kill a lot of my characters—it’s war, and people die.
How do you raise the stakes for your protagonist—for the antagonist? I try to place obstacles in front of them and make them figure out how to work around it or avoid it.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew to enjoy? I would have to say, Shakespeare. It was required reading in high school, and my head just wasn’t in it. It wasn’t until I attended the Ashland Shakespeare festival (for almost ten years) where I developed a love for his histories. I bought a thick book with all his plays and read them.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? I have, but they have since passed. I try not to defame them. I read biographies about them and pick and choose what I want to use. Some real characters I have placed in a bad light, but they were evil people who lived in a foreign country and have been dead for decades.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I’m a plotter. I create a rough outline that I constantly rewrite. I mainly use it to remind me where the plot is headed and my character’s traits. Sometimes I go off the trail and end up pantsing a bit. Sometimes I keep it. Sometimes I toss it.
What kind of research do you do? I use the internet a lot but try to get my questions answered by several different sources. I have purchased old Life magazines for insight into the language and history. I also read other’s historical writings from the period.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I generally use real locations. I research old photographs to see the layout of streets, buildings, transportation, and attire in that period. I try to build a world that is believable. I may get a few things wrong, but for the most part, I think most readers are forgiving.
Do you have any advice for new writers? My only advice would be if you like to write then WRITE. It doesn’t matter if you wish to publish or not. Do it for yourself. Writing is something that you alone own, and no one can take it from you. If you wish to be a serious writer, then you need to join a writers group that offers critique, attend conferences, and build your vocabulary.
For further information, you can contact Paula at www.russianhillpress.com/contact
Russian Hill Press www.russianhillpress.com