In her youth, Kassandra Lamb had two great passions—psychology and writing. Advised that writers need day jobs and being partial to eating, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe populated by her fictional characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida, where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.
Service dog trainer Marcia Banks tackles a locked room mystery in a haunted house. She has trained a dog to clear rooms for an agoraphobic Marine who was ambushed during combat. But the phantom attackers in his mind become the least of his troubles when Marcia finds his ex-wife’s corpse in his bedroom, with the door bolted from the inside.
All my books are mysteries, but I like variety, so I tend to explore different subgenres. I have one completed series of traditional mysteries, one series of cozy mysteries that is winding down, and I have started a new series of police procedurals. I’ve also written some romantic suspense stories under the pen name of Jessica Dale.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? Some behave, but many do not. My main characters tend to behave most of the time. An exception was the main character of my cozies, Marcia Banks (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha). I originally gave her a few neuroses, so she’d have some things to overcome during the course of the series. The main one was a longing to “be normal,” as she had been teased as a kid over her name and because she was a pastor’s kid. Plus, she’s licking her wounds after a short but disastrous marriage. But then she decided to throw a strong resistance to commitment into the mix, which drove her love interest a bit crazy for a very long time.
Minor characters often assert themselves and insist on bigger parts in the stories. I had two minor characters do this in my Kate Huntington series. One, Skip Canfield, wooed his way both into Kate’s heart and into a main character role.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use some of both. If I’m only going to have good things happen in a location, I’ll probably use a real place. The last two of my series are set in Florida, where I live now. Locals get a kick out of seeing a location name and being able to say, “I know where that is,” or “I’ve been there.”
But if I’m going to have negative things happen, such as corrupt cops, I make up a location. I’ve added three fictitious counties and a fictional city to the Florida map, so far.
What is the best book you ever read? Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, by Bebe Moore Campbell. It is set in the 1960s and 70s when I was a teen and young adult, and it addresses race relations in a very human way.
Ms. Campbell captured the thoughts, feelings, and internal conflicts of all of her characters, including the extremely bigoted white males! She handled the multiple points of view so well that I was inspired to try that approach in my Kate Huntington series. (I’ve since switched to one point of view, usually first person, in most of my stories.)
What are you working on now? I’ve started a series of police procedurals, and I’m really enjoying that new challenge. The protagonist was a secondary character in my Kate Huntington series, a homicide lieutenant who becomes increasingly frustrated with big-city politics (the Kate series is set in the Baltimore area) and with riding a desk instead of being out on the street. Judith Anderson takes a job as Chief of Police of a small city in Florida, figuring if she’s in charge, she can be more hands-on. In Book 1, Lethal Assumptions, she’s only eight days on the job when she finds herself chasing a serial killer.
I’m currently writing the first draft of Book 2, Fatal Escape, which deals with human trafficking and domestic abuse. But since I’m used to writing cozies (which are supposed to be “clean”), I’m trying to keep the gore and swearing to a minimum. I don’t want to offend my loyal readers.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I usually do, especially in a full-length novel. Often the subplot is about the main character’s love life. My favorite kind of subplot, though, is one that ends up tying into the main plot at the end of the story.
In Fatal Escape, Judith’s love interest is the sheriff of the next county over. She calls him Sheriff Sam inside her head. She already has a drowning case on her plate—that could be a suicide or murder—when she gets a call from Sam to come to a murder scene on the boundary line between their two jurisdictions. They have a funny little back-and-forth in which each is trying to give the case to the other one.
Sam finally takes the case since Judith’s already got her hands full. But later, it turns out that the two cases are linked. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, but I can hardly wait to write the chapter in which they make the connection. Every time I think about it, I want to rub my hands together and laugh diabolically.
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Martha Crites worked as a mental health counselor for many years. When she decided to write novels, she gave her protagonist another position in the same field. Martha’s two traditional mysteries, Grave Disturbance and Danger to Others, feature Grace Vaccaro, a psychiatric evaluator who determines when a person must be hospitalized against their will.
Danger to Others – October in the Pacific Northwest foothills brings more than a change of season. Psychiatric evaluator Grace Vaccaro is on edge. A field evaluation gone wrong leads to a shooting, Grace’s mother has died, and ghosts from her family past are everywhere. When a young woman says she killed her therapist, Grace suspects it’s delusion and sets out to prove her innocent. Then Laurel escapes from a locked unit, and suspicions abound.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? My writing is very personal; both setting and plot start from real places. Because privacy is so important in mental health, patients’ stories only give general inspiration. But Harborview Medical Center, Seattle’s old county hospital built in the 1920s, is a rich location. The place is full of odors, basement corridors, and patched together buildings added every few decades. I set scenes everywhere, from the emergency room to psychiatric units, to the morgue. I’m also in love with the Pacific Northwest. Many months a year, the dark and dripping rain strike the perfect mood for mystery. When I first began writing, I had just moved from a rural area to the city. I missed the country and its connection to the natural world, so I set the story in the very house where I used to live. Each day, I could go there in my mind and pull out details that deepened the story. For my third novel, I’m using May as the setting. There will still be plenty of storms but a large dose of hope and rebirth.
What kind of research do you do? Danger to Others explores the difference between the old state hospitals and modern treatment of mental illness—both with their own strengths and weaknesses. Research led me to this story. Writing is never easy for me, but often enough, when I need a plot turn, I find the solution in the news within days. With Danger to Others, I was making progress on the main plot and thought, “I really need a subplot.” By the weekend, the newspaper ran an article about Washington’s Northern State Hospital, a mental institution that closed in 1973.
This was a subplot with my name written all over it. As I was about to save the article for inspiration, I realized just how meaningful the topic was—my father’s mother had died in a state hospital before I was born. Families didn’t talk about mental illness back then. All I’d been told was that she’d had a brain tumor. In my work life, from time to time, when I saw a patient with a brain tumor showing confusion or personality change, I thought, maybe that’s what happened to my grandmother, but my father would never speak of it. So my subplot sent me into research mode.
First, I read every book and watched every movie dealing with historic treatment of mental illness—far more than would ever be incorporated into my writing. I was also fortunate to have the diaries of an aunt that revealed a few mentions of her treatment. Next, I visited Northern State Hospital, where a trail winds through the old dairy farm that supplied food and gave patients meaningful work. The mysterious, collapsing buildings set in the shadow of the North Cascades Mountains inspired several scenes.
At the same time, I sent for my grandmother’s death certificate and learned that there had been no brain tumor. Sadly, she died of a heart attack just 19 days after admission to the hospital. Her death was likely the result of the Insulin Shock Therapy she received. Though it reportedly helped with symptoms, the treatment was so physically hard on patients that its use was discontinued by the 1960s. You can see a portrayal of it in the film, A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash.
My grandmother’s diagnosis was late-onset psychosis, meaning she’d led a normal life. Then and now, families struggle to understand what happens when a loved one experiences mental health problems—especially in a world where mental illness is stigmatized. This springboard for my subplot was fictionalized in Danger to Others. In fiction, my sleuth found people with answers to her questions. Answers don’t exist in my life but resolving my protagonist’s questions satisfied me too. My writing journey led me to learn about my grandmother and how her history, without my knowing, might have led to my career in mental health.
Danger to Others is particularly close to my heart because as I began writing, I realized that what many people know about mental illness and its treatment is based on faulty information. Thus began my mission to humanize people we might find scary or funny in daily life. I aim to decrease the stigma of mental illness by writing fully developed characters who also experience mental illness, all while telling a good story.
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Millicent Eidson is the author of the alphabetical Maya Maguire microbial mystery series. The MayaVerse at https://drmayamaguire.com includes prequels, “El Chinche” in Danse Macabre and “What’s Within” in Fiction on the Web, and a side story, “Pérdida” in El Portal Literary Journal. Author awards include Best Play in Synkroniciti and Honorable Mention from the Arizona Mystery Writers. Those who join the Reader List will receive a free e-book copy of “Monuments,” the 10-minute play taking place in the Santa Fe, New Mexico Plaza.
Dr. Eidson teaches a course about animal diseases (zoonoses) at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. Her work as a public health veterinarian and epidemiologist began with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It continued at the New Mexico and New York state health departments.
Millicent critiques the twist ending of the award-winning film “The Power of the Dog” based on research for her first novel “Anthracis: A Microbial Mystery.” (152) The Power of the Dog: Confused by the Surprise Twist Ending? – YouTube
What’s your latest book title? “Borrelia: A Microbial Mystery” will be published in June 2022, first in e-book, then paperback, hardcover, and large print formats https://drmayamaguire.com/borrelia
Tell us a bit about Borrelia: As she begins a second year with the CDC, veterinarian Maya Maguire has had no time to recover from Arizona anthrax and its fallout on those closest to her. Squiggly spirochete bacteria transmitted by blood-sucking lice and ticks challenge her developing confidence while she manages an arrogant trainee. Immigrant-associated Borrelia in Europe during a summer heatwave is a chance to escape the overwhelming demands and one more opportunity to succeed.
What brought you to writing? Like many authors, a love of reading is my foundation for writing. I was blessed with book-obsessed parents who taught me to read by age two, so I’ve been absorbing written language before my first memory. When my grandfather gave me the complete works of Shakespeare at age seven, I was hooked. I wrote at every opportunity, although keeping a journal about my own life bored me.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? Unfortunately, having retired to a small apartment, I don’t have a separate office. So my computer table is in the corner of the combination dining room, living room, and kitchen. Fortunately, playing classical music from a local public radio station keeps me focused, and periodic gazes out at spectacular Lake Champlain keeps me peaceful.
Tell us about your writing process. I’m more alert and energetic for writing first drafts in the morning. I’ll take a lunch break, then work on editing for my writing workshops or promotional efforts. I learn so much from receiving and giving feedback, so it’s a major commitment to my process.
Who’s your favorite author? As mentioned previously, I can never get enough Shakespeare. For mysteries, having grown up in the Southwest, no one can match Tony Hillerman. With my novels having a medical twist, my queen is Tess Gerritsen.
How do you come up with character names? Choosing character names is fun. Sometimes it’s a nod or wink to family and friends. If the character represents a group or profession, I’ll look up real names and combine them in different ways while still keeping the sense of authenticity.
What is the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? Fortunately, my husband is my first reader, so he’ll give me advice about male characters. He thought the male cowboy veterinarian who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture was similar to some of my veterinary school classmates. So I doubled down on that character, and he has been a leading colleague and friend for my protagonist.
Do your protagonists ever disappoint you? Of course. There are a number of ways in which my protagonists differ from me, even though I use my own experiences in public health work. Borrelia, has a “Me, Too” subtheme. The protagonist’s decision-making is the subject of considerable debate, similar to the famous cases in real-life. The third book about coronavirus planned for late 2022 has three female protagonists, all balancing personal and professional lives. They make some difficult choices that are different than my own.
Do you ever kill a popular character? In the first draft of Anthracis, Maya Maguire’s love interest did not survive. All it took was a couple of early readers to suggest changing that ending, and I made the adjustment. Readers of Borrelia will be glad I did!
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? It’s a joy to sit at my computer and jump into my characters’ lives without knowing what they will do next. For me, immersion in their thoughts and feelings is the best way to make them vibrant for the reader.
What kind of research do you do? Despite being a pantser, my novels are solidly grounded in real science about these pathogens. PubMed is my source for finding old and new peer-reviewed scientific journal articles to augment my training and experience. CDC’s MMWR is a goldmine for breaking news about disease outbreaks. Because vivid settings are very important, I always research them even when they’re ones I’ve experienced.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? In my fiction reading, I like recognizing a location, so I generally use real ones. I want readers to experience my settings with all of their senses. For events that might be upsetting, I’ll create a fictional business. For agencies or groups that are real and can’t be changed, the characters and their actions are my creation, like an alternate universe where the real people and how they would handle their jobs are replaced by my fictional ones.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Because I’m planning an alphabetical microbial mystery series, I have more fascinating diseases and Maya Maguire’s character growth to share. For the third coronavirus novel, other characters take center stage for earlier outbreaks called SARS and MERS. It’s great looking forward to giving readers different perspectives on the unending battle against mysterious microbes.
How do our readers contact you?
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.
Nick Chiarkas grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother was told by the principal of PS-1 that “Nick was unlikely to ever complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation.” Instead, Nick became a writer, with a few stops along the way: a U.S. Army Paratrooper; a New York City Police Officer; the Deputy Chief Counsel for the President’s Commission on Organized Crime; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way, he picked up a Doctorate from Columbia University, a Law Degree from Temple University; and was a Pickett Fellow at Harvard. How many mothers are told their child is hopeless? How many kids with potential simply surrender to desperation? That’s why Nick wrote “Weepers”—for them.
Weepers: The murder of an undercover cop in a New York City Housing Project in 1957 has unexpected ties to the unsolved disappearance of a young father walking home in those same Projects with his son, Angelo, on Christmas Eve 1951. The only witness to the cop killing is Angelo, now 13, as he was on his way to set fire to a grocery store at 2:00 am. The killers saw him. These events forge a union between a priest, a Mafia boss, a police detective, and Angelo, a gang member. In Weepers, we see that if you drop a rock into the East River, the ripples will go all the way to Italy. In the end, Weepers shows us that the courage of the underdog—despite fear and moral ambiguity—will conquer intimidation.
Awards for Weepers:
• Firebird Grand Prize Best Book Award (2022)
• Best Mystery Novel for 2017 the John E Weaver Excellent Reads Award by Earthshine. https://www.speakuptalkradio.com/nick-chiarkas-firebird-book-award-winner/
• Award Winner – Best Novel of 2016 by the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA)
• Award for Best Book Award by Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MIPA)
• Award for Best Young Adult Novel for 2016 by Bookvana
• Award for Best Crossover (Mystery & Young Adult) Best Books Award for 2017
• Award for Best Young Adult Coming-of-Age by Readers’ Favorite for 2018
Nunzio‘s Way: Nunzio drifted back to his childhood there on the Lower East Side. The narrow, trash-lined streets and alleys weaved together decaying brownstone tenements with common toilets—one per floor. Alone at ten years old, after his mother died, he learned to survive in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in the city. He shoveled coal and guarded the produce stored there by the ships docked off South Street to pay for living in the cellar at 57 Canon Street. After school, Nunzio mostly walked the streets. He recalled the putrid smell of decomposing cats and dogs covered with a trembling blanket of insects, rats, and things he didn’t recognize. And lying in the gutter against the sidewalk on Pike Street was a horse, with old and fresh whip wounds, shrouded in a cloak of flying and crawling insects. Only three years later, at the ripe age of thirteen, Nunzio killed his first man, a hulking longshoreman people called “the bear.” His life and the lives of four of his friends changed forever. Plenty of other horrors and hardships confronted him throughout his life, but when he closed his eyes, Nunzio saw the horse.
“Nunzio’s Way” In 1960, Declan Arden, an ambitious New York City lawyer, asked his boyhood friend and client, Nunzio Sabino, the most powerful organized crime boss of his time, to help him win the election for mayor. Nunzio agrees to help Declan, telling him, “In this city, you can have anything you want if you kill the right four people.” In Italy, after killing a top member of the Gomorra, Heather Potter, arrives in New York City seeking vengeance on the people who murdered her family. Those people include Nunzio Sabino and Mac Pastamadeo. Mac is the father of Angelo, the leader of the Weepers gang.
NICK’S FAVORITE WORKSPACE
Five fun facts most people don’t know about me (Nick Chiarkas)
- I received the Law Enforcement Commendation Medal from the Sons of the American Revolution, and I received the Equal Justice Medal from the Legal Aid Society – These two awards are not in conflict but in harmony. I believe that no one is above the law’s enforcement nor below its protection.
- I raised my two oldest children mostly as a single dad – just the three of us. They taught me a lot.
- I was one of a handful of NYPD cops sent to Woodstock in 1969 to provide security – it was incredible.
- While in an Army hospital, I received a very kind letter from J.D. Salinger.
- I was in the movie The Anderson Tapes (Starring: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Walken).
Available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, University of Wisconsin Bookstore, Mystery to Me, other local independent bookstores, and from the publisher.